Dr Ayesha Alvi and Dr Mohammad Rizwan trace the complicated and all-important connections between the heart and the mind in this research article…


The human body is a marvel of complexity, where organs and systems work in cohesion to sustain life. Among these intricate relationships, the connection between the heart and the brain stands as one of the most fascinating and essential components. The burgeoning field of neurocardiology has been shedding light on this captivating heart-brain connection, revealing a profound interplay that extends far beyond the traditional roles of these organs. In this exploratory article, we will delve into the heart-brain relationship, its scientific underpinnings, and the implications it holds for our understanding of religiosity, health, emotions, and consciousness.

Before now, without much doubt, we have all been raised to consider the brain as the sole organ that houses the intellect, decision-making competence, emotions consciousness etc. while the heart being nestled in the chest, is responsible for pumping blood throughout the circulatory system. However, this traditional outlook of ours is blurred by emerging research in the field of medicine.

Under the influence of scientism, material explanations of various phenomena of higher cognition were increasingly being explained using a naturalistic and reductionistic methodology wherein the physiological phenomenon was reduced exponentially to an extent that today it can be deciphered biochemically or molecularly. In fact, neurobiologists have even branded specific areas in the brain to be directly involved in impacting our moral functions (e.g., judgement and lies) and spirituality (God Spot). So congruently, we all deem that it is the brain that singly processes the information coming from our sensory organs, social and environmental interactions etc. (exteroceptive signals) and accordingly orchestrates our behaviour. It also controls and coordinates all of the body’s other organs, including the heart’s internal body functioning (interoceptive signals). In short, it is our brain that is the prime face that speaks its goings-on in different tongues.

Similarly, we all scientifically and medically reason that the primary function of the heart is to make sure that every part of the body gets oxygen and nourishment through constant blood flow. However recent scientific advancement in the field of neuro-cardiology, psychophysiology, and neurophilosophy, has significantly changed our centuries-old mindset towards the Heart; being more than just a pumping station of the body. It is now experimentally evident that it not only makes the sounds “lub dub” but also conducts the electrical signals, and secretes certain hormones that meaningfully and profoundly influence how we perceive the world, the decisions we make, our thoughts, intentions, our sense of who we are and self-consciousness by itself.
It is now empirically proved that the heart has its intrinsic nervous system that empowers it on one hand to function independently of the head brain system and parallelly facilitates bidirectional interaction between the two distinct brains. This suggests that these two organs though located distantly far apart are intimately connected and interdependent. Several clinical studies are proving that various brain-based conditions (stress, anxiety, or depression) affect our heart health or vice versa.

The brain in the heart; Tracing the Connections between the Heart and the Brain:

The discussion on the connection between the heart and the brain goes back to 1884, when the psychologist William James explained it very well through the scenario: “Imagine you are walking through the woods, and you come across a grizzly bear. Your heart begins to race. You feel afraid, and you run.” This theoretical impression of him essentially indicates that there is a connection between a physical reaction (a racing heart) that gets-up-and-go one’s emotional sentiments (fear). Corroborating this notion, scientists over 200 years gradually tried to find answers to various questions regarding heart function and its controlling mechanism. In the long run, Dr. J. Andrew Armour originally broke new ground in 1994 in the field of cardiology by introducing the concept of functional ‘heart brain’. He showed that the heart has its own “little brain” which is comprised of a complex state-of-the-art intrinsic nervous system. These findings prompted a much wider understanding of heart-brain connections and gave rise to several domains of enquiry.
Consider the following:

The Heart’s Intricate Neural Network:

One of the most intriguing aspects of the heart-brain connection is the heart’s intrinsic nervous system, often referred to as the “heart brain.” This network comprises approximately 40,000 neurons, more than those found in certain regions of the brain. These neurons form a complex neural network within the heart that can operate independently of the central nervous system. This heart-brain communicates with the brain via neural pathways, hormones, and other biochemical signals

Emotional Significance:

One of the most intriguing aspects of the heart-brain connection is the heart’s intrinsic nervous system, often referred to as the “heart brain.” This network comprises approximately 40,000 neurons, more than those found in certain regions of the brain. These neurons form a complex neural network within the heart that can operate independently of the central nervous system. This heart-brain communicates with the brain via neural pathways, hormones, and other biochemical signals

Emotional Significance:

The heart’s role in emotions is one of the most compelling aspects of neurocardiology. While we have long associated emotions with the brain, it appears that the heart plays a significant role in emotional processing. Research has shown that the heart communicates with the brain and can influence our emotional responses. For example, studies have indicated that the heart can send signals to the brain that affect our perception of stress and anxiety. This interplay between the heart and brain is believed to underlie our intuitive decision-making and emotional regulation.

The Heart’s Electromagnetic Field:

Another remarkable aspect of the heart is its ability to generate a powerful electromagnetic field, which extends beyond the body. This electromagnetic field carries information and can affect the physiological processes of individuals nearby. This finding suggests that the heart may play a role in social interactions, empathy, and collective emotional experiences, challenging the notion that consciousness and emotions are solely products of brain activity.

The Heart as an Information Processor:

Recent research in neurocardiology suggests that the heart is not only involved in emotional processing but also in complex information processing. The heart-brain connection appears to contribute to our ability to make rapid, intuitive decisions, sometimes referred to as “heartfelt decisions.” This challenges the traditional view that all decision-making processes are solely brain-based and hints at a distributed model of cognition where the heart and brain can plausibly collaborate in processing information and guiding our choices.

Heart Coherence:

One concept that has emerged from neurocardiology research is “Heart Coherence”. Heart coherence refers to a state in which the heart’s rhythms (heartbeat) pulse-to-pulse become more ordered and harmonious to impact bodily processes, especially brain activity. In other words, it is the heart which has been associated with self-regulating the emotional balance and cognitive clarity of an individual. Achieving heart coherence through techniques like heart rate variability (HRV) biofeedback or mindfulness practices is believed to enhance overall well-being, resilience to stress, and even cognitive performance.

Emotions, Intuition, and the Heart-Brain Connection:

The heart-brain connection challenges the prevailing view that emotions are solely generated and processed in the brain. While the brain undoubtedly plays a significant role in emotions, the heart’s influence cannot be ignored today. Research suggests that the heart communicates with the brain through the vagus nerve and releases certain hormones that affect our emotional states, intuitions, implicit knowledge, or conscience. This finding underscores the importance of considering holistic approaches to understanding man’s mental health and emotional well-being especially against the backdrop that contemporary research is continuously unearthing fascinating discoveries about how the brain and body’s vital organs cross-talk and communicate with each other and how they influence a person’s own life in a much broader frame than before or rather beyond the traditional frame.

Neurological Disorders and the Heart:

Understanding the heart-brain connection has implications for various neurological disorders. Conditions such as epilepsy, which were traditionally thought to be primarily brain-related, are now being studied from a neuro cardiological perspective. Researchers are investigating how the heart’s electrical activity and neural connections may contribute to certain neurological conditions and exploring novel treatment options.

Embodied Cognition and Phenomenology:

From a philosophical standpoint, the heart-brain connection challenges the traditional dualism between mind and body. The concept of embodied cognition posits that our cognitive processes are deeply intertwined with our bodily experiences. In this context, the heart represents an essential aspect of embodied consciousness, challenging the Cartesian separation of the thinking mind from the physical body. This philosophical shift aligns with phenomenology, a school of thought that emphasizes the subjective experience of the body as the foundation of human consciousness.

The Heart as an Epistemic Organ:

Epistemology, the branch of philosophy concerned with the nature of knowledge, is also impacted by the heart-brain connection. It prompts us to reconsider the sources of knowledge and how we perceive and understand the world. The heart, traditionally seen as a symbol of emotion and intuition, challenges the primacy of rational thought as the sole source of knowledge. It suggests that there are non-cognitive, intuitive ways of knowing that are mediated by the heart, expanding our epistemological horizons.

Consciousness and Emergent Properties:

In the realm of philosophy of mind, the heart-brain connection raises questions about the nature of consciousness itself. It prompts us to explore the idea that consciousness may not be solely an emergent property of brain activity but may also involve the heart as an active contributor. This challenges reductionist views that attempt to explain consciousness solely in terms of neural processes. Instead, it suggests that consciousness is an emergent property of the complex interplay between the heart and the brain, with implications for panpsychism and other philosophical theories of consciousness.

Holistic Well-Being and Virtue Ethics:

From an ethical perspective, the heart-brain connection encourages us to adopt a more holistic approach to well-being. Virtue ethics, a philosophical framework that emphasizes moral character and flourishing, aligns with this perspective. It invites us to cultivate virtues related to emotional intelligence, empathy, and heart-centred values. This ethical dimension of neurocardiology challenges utilitarian or deontological ethics that focus solely on rational decision-making.

The Ethics of Emotional Intelligence:

Ethical theories, such as virtue ethics and care ethics, resonate with the heart’s role in emotional processing. Virtue ethics, championed by Aristotle and others, emphasizes the cultivation of virtuous character traits, including emotional intelligence, empathy, and compassion. The heart’s involvement in emotional responses challenges utilitarian ethics by highlighting the importance of emotional well-being and moral sentiment in ethical decision-making.

Islamic perspective about the realm of heart-brain duality:

These neurocardiological findings prompted several interdisciplinary discussions and a lot of literature has been published linking these findings with the Quranic concept of heart.
This happened primarily because the scientific concept of the brain originally did not fit into the Quranic concept of intelligence. Although neurobiologists showed us lie-station in the particular part of the brain (frontal lobe) the Quranic term “Nāṣyat” is argued by Muslim scholars that this idiom does not refer to individual’s brain, rather the term is metaphorically used to refer to the ‘lying, sinful’ person themselves. This argument of the scholars is in coherence with the linguistic meaning wherein it is defined as a lock of hair growing just above the forehead (forelock) or front part of the head (forepart of the head) but not the frontal lobe of the brain by itself. In the same way, the Quran in various verses emphasizes the heart as a place of wisdom, faith, and consciousness symbolically or metaphorically because it essentially reflects the inner dimensions of human consciousness, the degree of spiritual receptiveness of a person to divine guidance and a deeper level of transcendental understanding; having a pure, sincere, and sound heart free from arrogance, hypocrisy, and moral impurities, rather than mere intellectual knowledge. Therefore, the Quranic and scientific concept of the heart and brain in truth discuss two different features; spiritual vs physiological/anatomical. More importantly, the Quran has nowhere acknowledged the brain as the source of intellect rather Quran adopted the method of inciting humans to use the given intelligence and logic to argue, explore and reason to identify the truth and nurture the spiritual belief. Similarly, the concept of Allah sealing the hearts, ears, and eyes mentioned in various Qur’anic verses (Surah Al-Baqarah: 6-7, Surah Al-An’am:25) is intended to metaphorically illustrate a spiritual and moral aspect of human behaviour towards guidance. These verses factually emphasize that their competence to comprehend, or decipher the concealed spiritual domain becomes unresponsive or worn-out due to their persistent disbelief, prolonged repeated rejection of Allah’s directives, or a refusal to acknowledge the truth. And that the sealing of hearts, ears, and eyes is not a predestined action but rather a result of one’s own choices and actions. We have to be cognizant as there are many such examples where science and the Quran corroborate or contradict. For example, the theory of evolution or the age of the Earth are the potential topics where scientific interpretation and understanding differ from literal interpretations of the Quranic perception of creation. Similarly, the Quran mentions the phenomenon of the formation of clouds or the presence of pain receptors in the skin. However, people (commonly) often navigate the science domain anticipating to correlate Quranic idioms with scientific findings in an effort either to gratify their curiosity or to enrich their faith through scientific understanding.

The Quránic perspective of Heart:

The term “heart” in Islamic philosophy has different connotations, simply beyond its physiological role. It is envisaged as the basis of intellect, wisdom and the home of sentiments translating into every good or evil thought and deed. This approach indicates that the main purpose of Islam is to edify mankind and to help them distinguish between what constitutes guidance and unorthodoxy. Therefore, in surah Al-Anfal verse 24 Quran says that وَاعْلَمُوا أَنَّ اللَّهَ يَحُولُ بَيْنَ الْمَرْءِ وَقَلْبِهِ which means “Allah intervenes between man and his heart”. Idealistically, if we-self analyse all such verses they reflect the metaphysical characteristic of consciousness, wisdom or intelligence. For example, there are many verses in the Qurán where human intelligence has been invoked or impelled using terms like “Yaqiloon” or “Yatafakkaroon” or “Ulul albab” (“In the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the alternation of night and day, there are signs for people with intelligence” Qurán 3:190) without pointing towards the brain. Conversely, there are several verses where the believer’s attention has been specifically drawn towards the heart not only as a promontory of intelligence, wisdom, and emotions but also as an instructor of self-censoring. “Have they not travelled through the land, and have they hearts wherewith to understand and ears wherewith to hear? Verily, it is not the eyes that grow blind, but it is the hearts which are in the breasts that grow blind”. (Surah Al-Hajj: 46).
“Verily, therein is indeed a reminder for him who has a heart or gives ear while he is heedful”. (Surah Qaf: 37) (Surah Al-A’raf: 179 “They have hearts wherewith they understand not”) Likewise, the Qurán lays heavy emphasis on the purification or cleansing of the heart from negative mannerisms like arrogance, jealousy, greed and other associated practices (tazkiya-e-nafs) and persuade mankind to safeguard it by nurturing virtues such as sincerity, humility, compassion, and gratitude. In Surah Al-Isra verse 36, the Qurán talks about the interrelationship between hearing and seeing on heart comprehension “Verily! The hearing, and the sight, and the heart, of each of those you will be questioned by Allah” because the perception that develops through their interaction in truth governs our actions.
In a nutshell…..
In Islamic perseverance, the heart holds a central locale and is of metaphysical significance. It is not merely discussed as a physical organ but is projected as the locus of spiritual consciousness and awareness. The Quran, often refers to the heart metaphorically and symbolically in a spiritual and moral context, highlighting its role in pondering, understanding, belief, and moral discernment. Discussed below is a considerate understanding of Islamic thought on heart-brain domain anticipating that it will widen our frame of mind.

The Heart’s Relationship with Divine Knowledge:

1. Islamic thought emphasizes the heart’s connection with divine knowledge and guidance. It is believed that the heart is receptive to divine inspiration and that sincere devotion and remembrance of Allah the Almighty (Dhikr) can purify the heart.
2. Emotions and Moral Consciousness:
Islam recognizes that emotions play a crucial role in impacting human moral consciousness. The heart is seen as the seat of emotions, including compassion, mercy, and empathy. These emotions are not seen as separate from reason but as integral to moral decision-making. The Quran often calls upon believers to cultivate qualities of the heart, such as compassion and forgiveness, and to act with empathy and kindness towards others.

3. The Heart’s Role in Spiritual Transformation:
In Islamic spirituality, the heart is not static but is subject to transformation. The process of purifying and nurturing the heart is central to achieving spiritual growth and closeness to Allah the Almighty. The heart undergoes a journey of spiritual purification (Tazkiyah) and enlightenment, moving from a state of spiritual darkness to one of illumination and divine awareness. This transformative journey, often described in Sufi literature, involves practices of self-reflection, humility, and inner contemplation.
4. Unity of the Heart and Mind:
Islamic thought emphasizes the unity of the heart and mind in the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom. While the heart is the seat of spiritual consciousness, it does not function in isolation from reason and intellect. Islamic philosophy acknowledges the complementary roles of the heart and mind in understanding the world, discerning moral values, and seeking knowledge.

Parting Words:

The Quran and Science are two distinct domains each with their idiosyncratic rationale.
Science is an ever-evolving discipline so their proposed theories, findings or innovations can change or upgrade as new evidence emerges due to constant technological advancement and understanding or interpretations. While the Quranic teachings are invariable and timeless and at times metaphorical or allegorical and will continue to captivate theologian’s researchers and scientists. Therefore, it is plausible to take into consideration their limitations before admiring or criticizing any scientific findings. As an analogy, the recent scientific idea of heart-brain connection (emotion and cognition) in truth challenges conventional notions about the division of labour between these vital organs, suggesting that the heart is not merely a mechanical pump but an integral part of our emotional and cognitive experiences. Today, the heart-brain connection transcends the boundaries of material science and enters the realm of profound philosophical and epistemological inquiry. It challenges traditional dualisms and invites us to explore the interconnectedness of mind, body, and emotion. If we continue to navigate deep into these philosophical streams, we will certainly gain new insights into what it means to be human and how we acquire knowledge about ourselves and the world. The heart, once relegated to the realm of metaphor and symbolism, emerges as a philosophical frontier that beckons us to explore the depths of fundamental questions of existence, the nature of higher consciousness and its various manifestations.


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