Do emotions come from the heart of the brain?

The romantic idea that emotions and feelings like love come from the heart has been a way of expressing that thoughts and feelings were separate. In other words, the brain and the heart should have no connection. 

In this interesting article we’re going to answer the question ‘’Do emotions come from the heart of the brain?’’ We will explain how emotions work and discover the curious relationship between emotions and the heart.

Do emotions come from the heart of the brain?

The emotions come from the brain. But the heart also has a lot to do with it, since the heart plays an important role in emotional experience.

The brain controls our emotions. Yes, no matter how many hearts we draw when we’re in love or when we feel that our heart can break out of sadness, this is not the organ that handles our emotions. 

It’s true that the brain and the heart are related, since the heart beats at a different rate depending on the emotions that our body feels, but it is the brain that is in control. And not the whole brain, but a very specific part: the limbic system. 

History of the relationship of the brain and heart

For Aristotle the heart was warm, an attribute of higher beings compared to cold-blooded animals, while the brain was a cold organ. The function of the brain was to cool the blood, helping to maintain a suitable temperature for the mental functions of the heart.

Such has been the prestige of the philosopher that, curiously, we continue to draw hearts (with a not real silhouette, but the one that was believed in the Middle Ages) to express our love. We identify that image with the organ where emotions and feelings reside.

It was Galen (130-200 B.C), a Greek physician, who discovered that the brain was the center of sensation and thought.

Despite his esteem for Aristotle, he didn’t accept that the brain was only a cooling system for the warm blood of the heart. He thought that if that were so, nature would have brought both organs closer together.

Throughout the Middle Ages knowledge of the nervous system hardly evolved. All that would change with the work of Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519). Using an ox brain and the techniques he used to make bronze sculptures, he made an internal mould of the cerebral ventricles. Thus clarified its structure, different from the three spherical “brain cells” that had remained until then.

Emotions and the limbic system

The term ‘limbic’ was coined in 1878 by the French physician and scientist Paul Broca, to designate an area composed of three structures whose function is related to learning, memory, and emotional responses. It’s located just below the cerebral cortex and is composed by the thalamus, hypothalamus, amygdala, and hippocampus.

The limbic system is the area of ​​the brain that directs our emotions and our most primitive sensations: those related to survival (such as fear and anger) and with human sensations around our sexual behavior. In fact, many scientists have come to call it the ‘reptilian brain’ since it takes care of our most basic instincts.

It’s one of the oldest parts of our brain. It’s more than two million years old and is still capable of controlling certain behaviors and sensations that today seem very rational to us: courtship, looking for a partner to marry or looking for a house. 

The amygdala, our emotional defense

The amygdala it’s the most important structure within the limbic system. It’s the one that stores and manages our most irrational emotions. It’s this part of the brain where the ‘defense’ is generated against the worst feelings that human beings have: fear, anger, sadness, etc. It’s responsible for regulating these sensations and protecting us against them.

Thanks to the amygdala we can escape from situations that put our survival at risk; But it also has a bad part: it’s what allows our deepest fears and childhood traumas to come to light.

The amygdala helps us find the necessary strategy to solve a situation of stress, fear or danger and gives us a balanced vision of what is happening around us. In short, it’s the part of the brain that allows us not to get carried away by panic and anxiety. 

Why do we say that feelings are in the heart?

Although science has shown that when it comes to emotions the heart is only a romantic symbol and these have their origin in the brain, scientists try to show why the human being notices how the chest shrinks or the heart breaks.

The task was epic: the universities of Aalto, Turku and Tampere selected 700 people from different cultures and different backgrounds and were asked to specify in which part of their body they felt the following emotions: anger, fear, disgust, happiness, sadness, surprise, anxiety, love, depression, contention, pride, shame, envy … and the absence of any of them (or neutrality, if that exists).

The study, which was published in the library of the National Academy of Sciences, found that the results were as consistent as they were strikingly similar, despite the difference between the subjects. 

The researchers came across the fact that certain emotions could be grouped together in certain areas of the chest. For example? Anger, anxiety and fear were localized in the chest. And love and happiness, on the other hand, were distributed throughout the body. 

Drawings of the human body were made and it was illustrated with colors that ranged from icy blue to represent sadness or depression, to fiery red that symbolizes anger or passionate love.

Researchers from these universities had one goal and this was to try to understand why there are emotions that cause a physical sensation in the chest or in the heart, for example. Does the expression (and the feeling) ‘’my heart shrink’’ sound familiar to you? 

And what about ‘’A heartbreak’’? Have you ever sadly experienced it? Actually, although they sound very real, they are nothing more than metaphors to describe very intense emotions – both happiness and sadness.

It’s scientifically proven (although emotionally difficult to accept) that the heart, when it comes to feelings, is just a symbol. The true ‘feeling’ takes place in the brain, not in the heart. So why are there sensations that cling to the chest in such an obvious and almost physical way?

The origin, always in the brain

That’s what the study was trying to show. Based on the sample of 700 individuals, they concluded a thesis similar to that presented by Robert Emery and Jim Coan, two professors at the University of Virginia; that is: the origin may be in a specific part of the cortex, the brain region to which the regulation of emotional reactions is attributed.

Both studies suggest that this area of the cortex becomes more active when there is a stress situation and, also, it seems to be connected to the vagus nerve, which begins in the brain and connects with the chest and abdomen. When this nerve is stimulated it’s when it seems that our chest shrinks or our heart breaks.

For their part, researchers from the universities of Aalto, Turku and Tampere explain these localized sensations in the heart and chest as a response from our body to perceived threats. 

The debate continues and the study continues; It is known that several scientific groups are studying why each of the emotions has a different body reaction.

While new conclusions are known, it’s totally legal, romantic (and even poetic) to continue talking about how our breasts shrink or how we notice that our hearts have been broken.

Love? The origin of love and drug addiction

Not everything in the brain is just survival and procreation responses. There is also room for something as subjective as love. Researchers at Concordia University in Canada have recently found the exact place where love is generated. 

When we feel love, our brain activates a specific part, called the striatum. This area is related to the part of the brain that generates sexual desire but, in turn, they are completely separated. 

According to the researchers who participated in a study love’s effects on the human brain, the place where love is activated is the same place where drug addiction is generated, something that apparently is not so weird since when a human being is in love he generates a desire and love is the response that satisfies him, something that happens exactly the same when drugs are consumed. 

So, do emotions come from the heart or the brain?

Most of us have the belief that the heart is responsible for feelings and emotions. So far much research has shown that feelings come only from the brain, specifically from the limbic cortex; It has been enacted that this part of the brain is the one that controls our emotions, feelings, and physical reactions, that’s why it’s called the emotional brain.

Studies define a critical link between the heart and the brain. The heart is in a constant two-way dialogue with the brain; Our emotions change the signals that the brain sends to the heart, and the heart responds in complex ways. 

At the same time, with its heartbeat language, it not only sends messages to the brain when its neurons detect that we need to balance, but it also activates its own resources to return to balance. It can even do it on its own, without our brain intervening.

FAQS: Do emotions come from the heart of the brain?

Why is emotion associated with the heart?

Emotions are related to the heart, because a great emotional charge usually accelerates the heartbeat. However, now, it’s known that emotions are centred in the brain.

What emotions are stored in the heart?

All emotions are felt by the heart. Like joy, anger, sadness, etc.

Does the human heart have a brain?

Yes, the human heart has a kind like “heart-brain” composed of 40,000 neurons that are capable of learning and remembering.

Why do we feel pain in heart when sad?

The effect of the activation of pain neurotransmitters is caused by adrenaline. When we go through situations of sadness or anxiety, the brain automatically sends a message to the body to release a dose of the hormone. Adrenaline makes us alert and provokes physical reactions.

During this process, the intercostal muscles, located in the chest region, contract to increase the amount of oxygen in the blood. That’s why we feel chest pain. 

What emotions make your heart beat faster?

Stress. The hormones released in stressful situations, cortisol and adrenaline. It makes your heart beat faster than ever.

In this article answered the question ‘’Do emotions come from the heart of the brain?’’ We explained how emotions work and discovered the curious relationship between emotions and the heart.

If you have any questions, please let us know!

References

Ask the Brains. (2010). Scientific American Mind, 21(1), 72–72. https://doi.org/10.1038/scientificamericanmind0310-72

LeDoux, J. (2003). The emotional brain, fear, and the amygdala. Cellular and molecular neurobiology, 23(4-5), 727-738.

McCraty, R. (2019). Heart-brain neurodynamics: The making of emotions. In Media Models to Foster Collective Human Coherence in the PSYCHecology (pp. 191-219). IGI Global.

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