Heartbreak is a powerful metaphor. It is found in the Bible, in Shakespeare’s plays, in poetry, in songs of Elvis Presley, and is descriptive of an overwhelming sadness or loss. More importantly, the word links emotions of love to the heart. Through the ages, the heart has been seen as the seat of intuition, creativity, wisdom, gratitude, faith and the most powerful emotion of all – love.
Textbooks of science define the heart as a blood pumping station for the body. The same sources tell us that it is actually the brain that controls the heart. In fact, the subject of what happens to the brain when a person falls in love has been a subject of intriguing study.
Interestingly, these studies reveal that the neural mechanisms of romantic attraction are distinct from those of sexual attraction and arousal. Brain scans of young men and women in love reveal that the experience of romantic attraction activates those pockets of the brain with a high concentration of receptors for dopamine, the chemical messenger closely tied to states of euphoria, craving and addiction.
Biologists have linked high levels of dopamine and a related agent, norepinephrine, to heightened attention and short-term memory, hyperactivity, sleeplessness and goal-oriented behaviour. What this means is that when we experience the first flush of love, we often show the signs of surging dopamine: increased energy, less need for sleep or food, focused attention and exquisite delight in the smallest details of this novel relationship.
While the emotional high people experience when in love is comparable to other ‘highs’ that see a surge in dopamine, there is another study that indicates that love is indeed a singularly unique feeling.
Bartels and Zeki, while studying the neural basis of romantic love, compared MRI scans of people in different emotional states, including sexual arousal, feelings of happiness and cocaine-induced euphoria. Though there was some overlap to other positive emotional states, the pattern for romantic love was unique.
And there are other hormones involved as well – oxytocin and vasopressin, which is secreted from the posterior part of the pituitary. Oxytocin is commonly referred to as the ‘love’ or bonding hormone. It has been known to have an important function in childbirth and lactation, and is secreted in the heart.
There is new evidence on how the physiological mechanisms by which the heart communicates with the brain, influences information processing, perceptions, emotions and health. The heart actually has its own intrinsic nervous system that operates and processes information independently of the brain or nervous system, and its magnetic component is about 500 times stronger than the brain’s magnetic field. This subtle but powerful electromagnetic communication system possibly contributes to the ‘magnetic’ attractions or repulsions that occur between individuals.
So, any which way we look at the subject of love and the heart, we can concur on the importance of having a healthy heart. There is every need for us to take greater responsibility to ensure we maintain a healthy, happy heart that is ready to experience and enjoy some of the finer human emotions.