Did you hear the one about the transplant patient who left his heart in San Francisco?

The discipline of Media Ecology teaches us to temper our natural inclination to critique the content of communication media with an appreciation of media biases. Marshall McLuhan argued that the true “message” of a medium is the particular “service environment” created by that medium. For example, in the age of the printing press, the medium of the book assumed a service environment that including paper and ink manufacture, book binding, and book distribution, not to mention literacy programs, public or private, and rest of the infrastructure necessary to disseminate and to support the practice of reading. It also includes the values and beliefs necessary to support that medium. To read a book properly you need quiet and privacy and so it could be argued that the printing press encouraged the public notion of rights of privacy and individual liberties. Pay attention the biases of a medium, to the service environment a medium requires, and you will understand the true impact of that medium.

A service environment has a greater impact on individuals and their societies than the content of a medium. McLuhan (1964) wrote that:

… the "content" of a medium is like the juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind. The effect of the medium is made strong and intense just because it is given another medium as "content." (p.18)

Marshall McLuhan’s “juicy meat” quote, which has often been used as an excuse to discount the importance of the media content, actually points us to a profound question. If students of Media Ecology should attend to a medium’s biases in order to describe its true impact on our society, why are we so distracted by the particular content that is put into that medium? How does this work? And why do certain metaphors, images, modes of expression or beliefs persist through time, across cultures and within a variety of media?

To suggest a possible explanation, I am going to examine one metaphor that has persisted since the early stages of western civilization. This conceptual metaphor will serve as an example of why certain “juicy meat” distracts our watchdog minds. I will demonstrate how the dominant medium of communication of an era influences the presentation and interpretation of this conceptual metaphor. Finally, I will suggest some avenues of further exploration to determine possible explanations for this persistence.

Franklin Institute Web Site:
The Giant Human Heart

If you visited the web site of Phildelphia's Franklin Institute in the fall of 2004 and chose the link to visit the exhibit of The Giant Heart, you would have discovered somthing curious.

Both online and at the museum itself, visitors can survey scientific information about the human heart, aided by a giant walk-through model that, proportionally, would be appropriate to a human 22 feet tall. Exhibits illustrate the structure of the heart, the function of circulating blood and the various ways that normal heart function can be impaired by disease and injury.

We learn that in a healthy adult, the heart is a muscle about the size of your fist. It has four chambers, and works in conjunction with your lungs to oxygenate your blood and circulate it through your body. The average heart beats about 70 to 80 times per minute (at rest), but can handle rates twice that for short periods of exercise or other stress. The heart is shaped roughly like a triangle with rounded edges, the major blood vessels entering and exiting at the top.

Franklin Institute Web Site:
The Heart Goes Pop

After contemplating the many scientific facts about this necessary muscle, you can link to site of the “The Popular Heart,” where you can view representations of the heart:

  1. in films
  2. in literature
  3. in advertising
  4. on television
  5. in popular song

Also available is a link to The Poetry of the Heart where you can post your own poems about the heart. At this point, we’ve moved from consideration of the heart as an essential part of the cardiovascular system to a consideration of the heart as a metaphor as expressed in our popular culture. The metaphor of the heart is not about the circulation of blood or the regulation of physical health. As portrayed in popular culture, the heart is the site of emotions, of certain deep thoughts that correspond to the true beliefs of an individual. The heart is also portrayed as a source of wisdom that can be tapped if we pay attention to it.

The metaphor of the heart occurs almost everywhere we look in both high and low culture. Why is this contemplation of the metaphoric heart part of a scientific exhibition about the cardiovascular system? For that matter, why are references to a metaphorical heart so common in popular culture?