The Heart vs. The Mind (scientific explanation) – A false dichotomy by the mind.

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What do you mean when you say your heart says one thing and the mind says another thing?

The Heart vs. The Mind

This may be a little too obvious, but I’ll highlight it anyway. There is no heart vs. brain or heart vs. mind as such. There isn’t any thought vs. feeling or logic vs. emotion either. There are variations such as heart vs. brain and heart vs. thinking which are equally untrue. There is no OR or VERSUS.

Emotions and thoughts both involve a holistic brain in their expression. They inform one another.

The heart vs. the mind debate
The Heart vs. the Mind debate

Understanding how to let one inform the other is a part of mature thinking. One need not choose between the two, one could bring the best of both worlds or let one warn the other. Another aspect of this is “heart vs. brain” idea is looking at both as concept with connotations. To look at it technically, there are limited inputs from your heart that you can understand and evaluate, to guide yourself. Usually, it’s just knowledge about how your heart is beating.

During distress, our heart could be pounding, or chest could be tightening. This feeling is easily observable and can be described. It is strongly associated with the mental aspect of distress (and emotions). The association was known before we knew our anatomy and the brain well enough. Scientists suspect that this association of emotional & mental stress and the pain in the heart are generalizable to emotions emerging from the heart. I too think this seeded all the connotations for the heart. 

The heart carries connotations (implied meanings) like childlike, at the core, deep within, life, etc. These secondary meanings are more valuable than thinking about the heart as an agent to guide thought. When we look at these connotations, we can have informed ideas about what we wish for or what we wish to do.

Occasionally, heart equates with emotions – something fundamental to being human; fundamental is another connotation for the heart.  Factoring in these dichotomies, we humans really use such vague ideas based on the connotations that they carry. This is how humans have abstract thoughts, metaphors, and associate multiple ideas.

Let’s try an example: There are 2 humans- a 2-year-old baby and a 60-year-old man, which one represents emotion, which represents thought? Most people would tend to think of the baby as a representation of emotion.

Another one. I’ll give you a simplified hypothetical question. Assuming Cats and Dogs are genderless, which one would be closest to a human male and which one would be closest to a human female?  There are no correct answers to these examples. There are just tendencies. Case in point – the fact that there can be a tendency demonstrates that we are building connotations around an idea and then matching these connotations to create an answer.

Some common answers: Cats have relatively smaller body sizes as compared with dogs. Thus they can be mapped to the size difference in men and women. Cats are independent, dogs are chasing – so maybe we can stereotype and map these connotations onto humans. These are called cross-modal correspondences where meanings from 1 mode (sensory information, idea, language) are mapped onto meanings from another mode. The famous Kiki-Bouba experiment demonstrates this well.

I’ll reserve a detailed scientific discussion on connotations for later – it involves looking at the spreading activation model for memory, concept formation, and abstraction. Topics I can go on and on about. Now that you know where this article is heading. Let’s address the crux of this phenomenon and try to answer this.

First, let us look at what we know objectively. 

The heart pumps blood. It is needed for survival. The heart does not have components that manifest as thinking and feeling.

The brain/mind allows us to think, feel, and act. The brain/mind is what creates emotions and thoughts. The heart merely supplies blood to the brain and the rest of the body.

We also know that the brain guides the functioning of every other organ, including the heart. But the heart keeps the brain alive using the blood. Organs respond to each other and work together. They are in a feedback loop. Emotions cause changes in heart rate. And changes in heart rate affect our emotions too.

What is thinking with your heart and thinking with your mind?

Variant one: What is reacting/behaving with your heart instead of your mind?

Variant two: I’m torn between my heart and mind. What should I do?

Variant three: I follow my heart, not my mind or brain. 

I’ve actually pondered over this universal classification of thought for a long time, mainly because I couldn’t comprehend what it means. I tend to think literally and how the vague idea of a heart “thinking” comes intuitively to people always eluded me.  

The root of this phenomenon lies in how humans form a concept and its interplay with abstract thought and language use. A concept is formed in a network of ideas.  We understand concepts by clubbing features (size, weight, function) and multiple systems of categories (animals, vehicles, food) together. We then differentiate and form unique concepts by looking at rules, similarities, and differences between multiple categories (animals vs. trees) and objects/examples (car vs. plane). Categorizing 2 different things like the heart & mind also give them unique features, just because of the categorization. That means, we tend to give this classification additional meaning. People generally care just about that additional meaning.

For example, the concept of furniture. You start out with examples like a table, chair, cupboard, etc. Then you find commonalities in them such as, “they are kept in the house,” “they are usually in the living room,” “you keep stuff on/in it”, more complicated commonalities such as, “they help us structure the room,” etc. Then you discriminate examples by contrasting furniture and non-furniture things like cars, guitars, books, etc. One basic way is realizing books have lots of meaningful words in them and furniture don’t.

However, we can say something like “your furniture is a story.” When could that happen? Perhaps the furniture has writings on it, it animates a structure through time – the evolution of style. Some furniture and books would have commonalities based on words, history, narration, depiction, etc. These wouldn’t merge the 2 concepts, but they would create an abstract binding for the two. 

Now, humans make concepts in webs. For example, pen, pencil, ruler, eraser, etc. all fall under the concept of ‘stationary’. Now a meta-link is formed by relating concept categories like ‘stationary’, ‘books’, ‘desk’, ‘computer’, ‘utilities’, etc. So this is the web of concepts linked closely together. As concepts get more abstract, like humility & honesty, their definitions get clouded through a lack of precise comparing and contrasting.

Let us return to the heart and the mind. The ‘heart’ is a concept which links together many other concepts such as ’emotion’, ‘feeling’, ‘mood’, ‘pleasure’, ‘impulse’, etc. This is a meta-link originating in the ‘heart’ being symbolic (having the connotations) of life, living, vitality, automation, core, most important, energy source, root, etc.  Similarly, the ‘mind’ creates a meta-link of logic, rationality, mechanical, superior, etc. because languages use words like compute, understand, develop, intelligence, etc. to talk about the mind. The mind is referred to as a processor of information which is believed to be deliberate/intentional.

Try snowballing around to find the words that link up with heart and then mind separately. 

Try looking at these contrasting connotations for the mind and the heart, you’ll find that heart vs. mind will be casually connoted by the following contrasts and meta-links will form around these words: (heart vs. mind). In a way, the heart vs. the mind is a substitute – a metaphor – for all the comparisons listed below.

  1. illogic vs. logic
  2. animalistic vs. human
  3. emotion vs. logic
  4. feeling vs. thought
  5. simple vs. complicated
  6. childlike vs. adult-like
  7. unconscious vs. conscious
  8. dumb vs. wise
  9. irrational vs. rational
  10. impulse vs. sacrifice/control
  11. inner voice vs. outer voice

It is also very convenient for humans to think in binary. That is ’emotion ‘and ‘not emotion.’ Instead of emotion and thought. As a psychologist, I would say, this binary classification helps a child grasp concepts, but they are seldom factually correct.

Example: All furniture can be classified as ‘chair’ and ‘not chair.’ But all chairs are similar, all ‘not chairs’ are not similar (tables, desks, closets, etc.). This classification certainly strengthens one’s understanding of the concept of a chair, but it is not a good classification as the categories are not homogeneous.

So that adds more ambiguity: does not emotion = logic?

People will usually just pick some approximate meaning to convey the message because of this. People, in general, tend to not focus on technical precision in daily conversations, as long as others understand the meaning and intent. Most of the meaning is derived from context.

So when people say I’m thinking from my heart or listen to your heart or mind, people are talking about all those meta-links which form a web of words & meaningful ideas. There is nothing special between the heart and mind as such. Both are metaphors created by the mind. A false dichotomy.

At a biological level, all thoughts and emotions are produced by the brain which creates a ‘mind’ in which you can define things any way you like. But mostly, define them similar to how ‘others’ define them – if we don’t agree on definitions, at least approximately, every sentence could be a debate, a disagreement, and chaos will ensue.

Emotions and heart are closely related because observable biological changes like heart-rate, sweat, chest-pounding, breathing, etc. are correlated with emotions. We have evolved to experience the mental aspect of emotions along with physical changes. Our sympathetic nervous system and parasympathetic nervous system connect emotions and physical changes. This association is so strong that it continuously reinforces the connection between the heart and emotion. We don’t experience one without the other. Physical changes make emotions tangible and observable to others too. That is why we can gain some insight into other people’s emotional states by observing their physical states – especially, the heart – the speed of pumping, heaviness, chest movement.

What should the takeaway be?

I’d say that understanding the connotations and representations of an idea is extremely important for clarity. People approximate ideas while talking about them based on the associations they have formed. Based on how they formed their concept. Based on how they updated their version of the concept.

The false dichotomy may be false, but I believe it is inevitable. Just understanding the connotations would help. That’s when people will understand what they are themselves saying and what others are hearing.

How to make use of this heart/mind problem?

You evaluate your thoughts. Understand the connotations of what you mean by heart or mind. Acknowledge your feelings and then make a rational decision based on both: feelings and thoughts. It would help if you address both sides together as one – think of them as different perspectives. Because, your ‘heart’ will say something that is not always comprehensible, and your ‘mind’ will say something that your heart disagrees with.

Don’t let this heart/mind dichotomy fool you. Acknowledge both. Let both inform your choice. Your heart could be your long-term experience guiding you, it could be a feeling you don’t fully understand. Your mind may be evaluating the pros and cons. Or it could be telling you what’s logical. The best decisions come are knowing the details that your mind and heart provide. Use the details. There is no formula. Only the insight into what’s happening on both sides.

P.S. If you liked this article, you might like this article about an experiment that shows abstract associations between concepts.

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7 thoughts on “The Heart vs. The Mind (scientific explanation) – A false dichotomy by the mind.”

  1. You have not experienced the small click of negative thought in the brain and immediately a deep sorrowful feel in the heart and the consequent release of stress hormones or sth in the brain. So you are saying these all…. in fact sensation site is brain but perception site is heart. Just know that only brain is not the software but heart too plays as software and these both share very clearly division of labour. So like liver or lungs heart is not only the hardware ( as you said merely a pumping organ) .. Its my view sir. I don’t mean to criticize your knowledge but i just shared my experience due to you…thanks

  2. Hey Aditya, this is some good work and research. You have very well presented the tug of war regularly happening between the mind and our heart. I feel this is mainly due to the increasing demand for human evolution. Humans these days arenโ€™t sufficed with the knowledge they have. Go through the following article to understand my point. It might even help you out with further knowledge on the same topic.

  3. Bang on, that is the feedback loop between our brain/mind and the organs it governs. It is a contributing factor if not more. It is easier to observe physiological changes in the body than observe thoughts so it is natural to associate the cognition to the physiological change and then attribute the cause to the organ causing the physiological change.

  4. The continual Loop between heart and brain basic functioning demonstrate how the heart will speed up or slow down based on mental thoughts that are causing physical feedback this physical reaction then recycles back to the brain stimulating more reaction causing more physical feedback therefore causing confusion as to where the thought is actually stemming from heart vs. Mind. Just a thought