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 your mind says another thing?

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. There are variations such as heart vs. brain and heart vs. thinking which are equally untrue. There is no real OR or VERSUS.

Emotions and thoughts both involve a holistic brain in their expression. They inform one another. The heart vs. the mind 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.

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 “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 heart could be pounding, our chest could be tightening. This feeling is easily observable and can be described. It is strongly associated with the mental aspect of stress, 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 are generalizable to emotions emerging from the heart. I, too, think this started the idea that emotions come from the heart.

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, 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. 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 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 any 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 modified perception due to those physiological changes. For example, a sudden change in heart rate might cause a person to worry and then anxious thoughts coming from detecting worrisome information can also change the 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 we form dichotomies like heart/emotion vs. mind/thought

When you treat the heart or mind as a concept, and nothing special, you can figure out what the 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 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 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.

For example, look at 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,” and 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 doesn’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 and separation for the two. 

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Now, humans make concepts in network webs. And we travel from one point in that web to the other for storing, comprehending, thinking, and remembering concepts (it’s called spreading activation). 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 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.

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.

  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. instinct vs. purposeful
  11. automatic vs. conscious
  12. 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.

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 instead of being 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 help, but only if it doesn’t lead to overthinking and a 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.

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

  1. 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.
  2. Find a compromise, like delaying the decision for a few months.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

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. 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.

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.

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.

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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

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  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.
    http://bodhable.com/articles_posts/the-mind-king/

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  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.

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  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

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