Editorial: Heart of the matter

·3 min read

Oh, our poor overworked hearts! In 2020, these endured many occasions to skip beats or to race through them double-time. When the pandemic-related news got extra terrifying, our hearts stopped. It’s a good thing this happened only metaphorically for most of us.

While much of the attention has focused on our lungs, it turns out that our hearts, too, are vulnerable to the virus that causes Covid-19. Infection, inflammation and enlargement are real threats. The next time someone mocks you or tries to make you feel silly for wearing a mask, let them know you are guarding your heart, which is something all humans, regardless of their political opinions, ought to do.

Even before last year’s events, our hearts carried the weight of near-impossible expectations. Of all our organs, it showed up for work first, just barely a month after our parents did the definitive deed. Without our eager and hard-working hearts, our growing collection of cells would not have been fed and nurtured.

And yet, it gets insulted the most, especially in the hundreds of pop songs that spotlight the thing. Our hearts have been called hungry, fragile, fickle, achy-breaky, broken, cheatin’ and foolish, vulnerable to the occasional (but total) eclipse.

Despite all these insults, the heart does the thankless job of keeping us warm-blooded and alive. It will go on and on, as that Celine Dion song says. It serves as both the Waze and Google Maps of our hyperactive work and love lives: We keep getting told to follow it, instead of our heads.

Think about it, though. Our brains are our sexiest organs, or so my mother likes to tell me. I think she may be right. When you lock eyes with someone across a less-crowded-than-usual room, it’s not your heart that responds. It’s your brain.

When a group of people are presented with the same emotionally charged stimuli, the organs that respond the same way are not people’s hearts. In 2004, a research team in the Weizmann Institute in Israel took MRI scans of people as they watched an old movie. The neuroscientists found that at certain points of the movie, the same region of people’s brains ticked in the same way, “making it difficult to distinguish one brain’s response from another,” wrote Tali Sharot, who is a neuroscientist herself (The Influential Mind, 2017).

“In the face of events that cause suspense, surprise and elation,” Sharot wrote, one person’s brain looked a lot like another’s. “Emotion was hijacking a large proportion of people’s brains and doing so in a uniform manner.” The movie, by the way, was the Spaghetti Western “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” which came out in 1966 and starred Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef and Eli Wallach. I’ve never seen it. I wonder, though, if a similar event — proof emerging of people’s brains responding in concert at certain pivotal moments — would be observed if a different movie was shown.

Unfortunately for the brain, it is highly unlikely to inspire movies, songs and other popular tributes the way the heart has done for centuries. There’s something winning about the heart, even on all the other days of the year.

“You have captured my hippocampus” just doesn’t have the same ring to it, even if that’s the part of the brain that makes us dream. “My navel is yours” might only work for a pair of narcissists, and “I love you from the bottom of my alimentary canal” would raise eyebrows more than it might send pulses racing. In any case, dear reader, I hope your heart (in both its actual and symbolic senses) is in fine form today and for years to come. May it bring you peace.