Matters of the Heart


“I’m heartbroken”

“Don’t give me a heart attack!”

“It will only cause heartache”

“Listen to your heart”

“My heart’s not in it”

“She’s cold-hearted”

“Cold hands, warm heart”



I could go on and on.  We hear phrases like these every day of our lives, and I don’t hear anyone questioning the meaning of them.  We all know about matters of the heart.  Valentine’s day is coming up, and hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of people will give or receive a card with a stylized heart on it, or a box of candy in the shape of a (stylized) heart, or a ‘heart-shaped’ necklace or locket.


But most of us also know that love is not really a function of the heart.  That’s something that came from way, way back, when people believed that emotion, caring, love, romance all came from the center of everything in the body, the heart.


We learn about the heart in many different ways during medical school.  In Anatomy, we dissect the heart of a cadaver and look at the anatomy – the chambers, the valves, the blood vessels running to and from the organ.  In Physiology, we learn about the pumping of blood, the electrical impulses that drive the beat of the heart, the calcium channels and beta receptors that control the strength and speed of the heart’s contractions.  In Physical Diagnosis, we learn the heart sounds,  normal and abnormal, and how to recognize different murmurs and their meanings, and how to see and feel pulsations that might indicate problems with the heart’s function.  In Cardiology rounds, we learn about the different diagnoses- Atrial Fibrillation, Cardiomyopathy, Cardiac Ischemia- and how to treat these conditions.


We learn nothing about love or passion or feelings.


In Neurobiology,  we learn that brain chemicals dictate feelings.  In fact, it’s more complicated than that.  Brain chemicals give us certain physical or neurological sensations, which we then attribute to particular ‘feelings’.    Love is a combination of adrenaline and serotonin and oxytocin released into the body by the brain,  not a function of the heart at all.


But the myth of love as a matter of the heart, and all the clichés and adages that go with that live on, even in those of us who know all the particulars of physiology and neurochemistry.  Doctors and scientists are not immune to sentimentality, and we are most certainly not immune to falling in love or to ‘having our hearts broken’.


When it comes to love, I can get as sticky-sweet as a teenager.  I love my husband more today than when we ‘fell in love’ 25 years ago.  Maybe that’s because my serotonin levels are higher or because our longterm attachment has increased my oxytocin levels.   I doubt it’s adrenaline, since my heart no longer pounds every time I see him… but then again, at our age, that might give me a heart attack.  Whatever it is, I partly feel it as something good at my center, and I’m not going to question that.


Medical training notwithstanding,  I look forward to Valentine’s Day, to giving him the card I chose with the red stylized hearts all over it, and receiving whatever ‘heart-shaped’ objects he chooses to bestow on me.













~ by drrozkaplan on February 13, 2012.

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