What do you mean when you say your heart says one thing and your mind says another thing? Let’s say your heart wants to date someone, but your mind says you really should focus on work. Your heart wants what it wants, right? This is a tug-of-war between emotions and thoughts – the heart is symbolic of emotions, and the mind is symbolic of thoughts.
The Heart vs. The Mind
All thoughts come from the brain, manifested in the mind, but influenced by the heart. However, here, the heart is a metaphor for emotions and intuition. There is no heart vs. brain or heart vs. mind as such. There isn’t any thought vs. feeling or logic vs. emotion, either. Variations such as heart vs. brain and heart vs. thinking are equally untrue. There is no real OR or VERSUS.
Emotions and thoughts both involve a holistic brain and body in their expression. They inform one another. The mind vs. heart conflict is a metaphor for thought vs. feeling, logic vs. emotion, conscious vs. subconscious, deliberate vs. impulsive, etc. This article will explain how this metaphor arises. And in the end, I’ll describe how to use these metaphors for decision-making.
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 “heart vs. brain” idea is looking at both as concepts 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 hearts could be pounding, and our chests could be tightening. If you meet your crush, your heart goes faster. This feeling is easily observable and can be described. It is strongly associated with the mental aspect of stress and arousal, which is largely a set of 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 created the assumption that emotions emerge from the heart. I, too, think this started the idea that emotions come from the heart.We observe thoughts coming from the mind, but we observe emotions as they are felt in the heart; that's why the debate between the mind and heart. Click To Tweet
The heart carries connotations (implied meanings, associations) 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.
The heart is usually equated with emotions – something fundamental to being human; fundamental is another association for the heart. We use such vague ideas based on associations. This is how humans have abstract thoughts and 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, and which represents thought? Most people would tend to think of the baby as a representation of emotion.
Another example. 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.
Some common answers: Cats have relatively smaller body sizes compared to dogs. Thus, they can be mapped to the size difference between 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.
The biological relationship between the heart and the brain
The heart pumps blood. It is needed for survival. The heart does not have components that manifest as thinking but it does show strong changes to emotions, but it can’t itself feel. The brain/mind allows us to think, feel, and act using many systems of neurons that work together. The brain/mind creates emotions and thoughts. We also know that the brain guides the functioning of every other organ, including the heart. Organs respond to each other and work together. They are in a feedback loop.
Emotions cause changes in heart rate, and have a unique “cardiac profile” for common emotions. Sadness increases blood pressure and resistance in the circulatory system but reduces the amount of blood pumped. Fear and joy increase systolic blood pressure. Anger increases blood output and diastolic blood pressure. Generally, emotions change 4 very important properties of the cardiovascular system: Blood pressure, heart rate variability, vascular resistance, and heart output. This is why relaxation exercises work – we can consciously control how the heart works to a small extent using emotions.
Changes in heart rate due to non-psychological reasons like food, diet, organ regulation, disease, etc., affect our emotions too. In fact, the James-Lange theory of emotion (re-interpreted with new findings) states that emotions are labeled in the brain after physiological changes. And those changes then affect our perception, which again changes the body’s response. For example, a sudden change in heart rate might cause a person to worry, and then anxious thoughts coming from detecting worrisome information can further increase heart rate after that.
But the relationship between the 2 is more complicated. The medulla oblongata, a part of the brainstem, is one of the most primitive regions of the brain, and it controls automatic processes like heartbeat and breathing. Damage to this area can slowly degrade breathing and heart function. In neurodegenerative disorders like ALS, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s, neurons in that area can die or malfunction and eventually lead to death by cardiac arrest.
More physiological changes like physical ticking, facial expressions, pupil dilation, sweating, changes in voice, etc., indicate emotional states. That’s why the idea that emotions are physical also seems accurate in everyday scenarios. 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, and chest movement.
These observations show the heart is closely tied to emotions at a physical level, but the labeling of emotion occurs in the brain. So, using the word “heart” to represent emotions is quite natural and logical. However, the heart’s properties aren’t the emotion itself. This leads people to equate the heart with emotions.
How heart/emotion vs. mind/thought problem arises
When you treat the heart or mind as a concept, and nothing special, you can figure out what your decision questions mean and where they come from. Both words are concepts we acquire through life experience using basic rules of learning.
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.
The meaning of these questions 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 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 with labels like the heart & mind also gives them unique meaning, just because of the categorization with labels. That means, we tend to give this classification additional meaning. People generally care just about that additional meaning. That is, the label represents more than the thing that is labeled.
Let us return to the heart and the mind. The ‘heart’ is a concept that links together many other concepts such as ’emotion’, ‘feeling’, ‘mood’, ‘pleasure’, ‘impulse’, etc. This association starts at the ‘heart’ being symbolic of life, living, vitality, automation, core, most important, energy source, root, etc. Similarly, the ‘mind’ represents logic, rationality, mechanical, superior, etc., because languages use words like compute, think, understand, develop, intelligence, etc., to talk about the mind. In fact, the mind itself is how we observe our own thoughts. So to simplify our own thoughts and categorize them, we create this simple but false dichotomy and split 2 concepts.
The quick fix
Then, to choose between your heart and mind, first look at what the concept of heart and the concept of mind means to you. Between the 2, you’ll have a priority and influence. For example, regarding the dating example – if you want to choose someone but you know you have to focus on work, classify the heart as influence, and mind as priority. If you are scared to ask someone out, classify the mind as influence and heart as priority. By re-labeling the concepts as priority vs. influence, you can make better decisions.
What the heart vs. mind actually represents
You’ll find that heart vs. mind will be casually represented by the following contrasts, and clusters will form around these words heart (left side) vs. mind (right side). In a way, the heart vs. the mind is a substitute – a metaphor – for all the comparisons listed below.
- illogic vs. logic
- animalistic vs. human
- emotion vs. logic
- feeling vs. thought
- simple vs. complicated
- childlike vs. adult-like
- unconscious vs. conscious
- dumb vs. wise
- irrational vs. rational
- instinct vs. purposeful
- automatic vs. conscious
- inner voice vs. outer voice
It is very convenient for humans to think in binary. That is ’emotion ‘and ‘not emotion.’ Instead of emotion and thought. This binary classification helps a child grasp concepts, but this classification is not enough to appreciate fully developed thoughts.
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.
All 12 of these connotations lead to changes in thought patterns based on how you formed concepts.
Resolving the heart vs. mind debate
It is possible to dissolve the dichotomy in different ways to help you understand your thoughts better and make effective decisions. This happens because we process concrete ideas better than abstract ideas, so converting your thoughts into more concrete ideas helps.
1. Automatic and deliberate thinking
We make decisions and judgments with rational thought and irrational thought. In many cases, we hardly think and base every choice on quick strategies called heuristics that involve emotions. For example, you may choose a brand because it makes you feel good, not because it is the best. You may choose something because it’s popular, and you’ll have FOMO if you chose the odd one out. You may choose to follow others’ decisions because thinking for yourself is too hard. These decision-making styles are just one of the metaphors for heart vs. mind. All of these strategies are useful in some contexts and bad in others, and there is no single way to make good decisions. However, sometimes, thinking things through helps, but only if it doesn’t lead to overthinking and decision paralysis.
Heart-based thoughts could emerge from habits (automatic processing), experience (intuition), emotional reactions before you’ve processed the thoughts, etc. Emotions influence thoughts, particularly when it comes to decision-making. Emotions make you want to approach/choose something or avoid/reject something. There is often no need to think when your heart says something based on your experience or emotional reactions. Because even if you rationalize it, you may end up with cognitive dissonance. Similarly, if you have thought something through, but your heart says you don’t like it, you may feel uncomfortable or keep doubting, leading to overthinking.
2. Cognitive dissonance
Cognitive dissonance occurs when 2 conflicting thoughts are present in the mind at the same time and both thoughts lead to indecision. For example, your “heart” might say you want to spend a lot of money on a new phone but your “mind” says you can’t spend that much money. Cognitive dissonance arises from binary this or that thinking and framing ideas according to dichotomies like those shown above. If you are like most people, you’ll represent one thought as your heart and the other as your mind, but both are just metaphors of ideas in your mind.
You can resolve cognitive dissonance with 4 tricks
- Bias yourself to choosing one of the two thoughts by connecting that thought with something more important. For example, you may want a phone, but you may also want a laptop. So keep that money for the laptop, which might be more important.
- Find a compromise, like delaying the decision for a few months.
- Choose something else you want so you feel satisfied with what your heart wants. You may have something cheaper you want, so perhaps choose that instead.
- Change the metaphor you are using and justify how the first one is a better idea. For example, if you think one decision is childlike and the other is adultlike, you can dismiss both concepts and choose rational vs. irrational to represent your thoughts. This way, you might find it easier to dismiss the irrational one because it’ll feel wrong. However, in the old metaphor, you may have seen nothing wrong in one thought just because it is childlike.
Get precise: The false dichotomy may be false, but I believe it is inevitable. Just understanding the metaphor would help. That’s when people will understand what they are themselves saying. When thinking about your own thoughts, be precise with ideas. If we don’t agree on definitions, at least approximately, every sentence could be a debate, a disagreement, and chaos will ensue. This means you won’t be able to properly assess your metaphors/connotations based on the information you seek to make decisions.
Listen to your experiences: 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. Reflect on the metaphors you are using for specific details and notice where your emotions are coming from.
Satisfy both – heart and mind – they are the same: Evaluate your thoughts. 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.
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Hey! Thank you for reading; hope you enjoyed the article. I run Cognition Today to paint a holistic picture of psychology. My content here is referenced and featured in NY Times, Forbes, CNET, Entrepreneur, Lifehacker, 10-15 books, academic courses, and research papers.
I’m a full-time psychology blogger, part-time Edtech and cyberpsychology consultant, guitar trainer, and also overtime impostor. I’ve studied at NIMHANS Bangalore (positive psychology), Savitribai Phule Pune University (clinical psychology), and IIM Ahmedabad (marketing psychology).
I’m based in Pune, India. Love sci-fi, horror media; Love rock, metal, synthwave, and pop music; can’t whistle; can play 2 guitars at a time.