Take another little piece of my heart now, baby!

The heart we read about in our literature, sing about in our songs and associate with feelings and deep insight is not a cardiovascular pump. If you look up “heart” in any Webster’s dictionary you will discover a long list of the ways the heart is used metaphorically. An individual can have a heart, take heart, be heartless, show heart and be in the heart of things. Our language betrays deeper beliefs about the heart. We speak of our core beliefs or principles, “cor” from the Latin for heart. When we want to truly understand a topic, we seek to get to the heart of the matter.

Throughout our culture, the heart is portrayed as the site of emotions and of perceptions that correspond to the true beliefs of an individual. While it is not possible in this short paper to provide a comprehensive survey this usage in our culture, examples using categories from the Franklin Institute’s “Pop” sites will illustrate my point.

Heart Songs: When Janis Joplin (1999) sang “take another little piece of my heart” , she wasn’t discussing bypass surgery. The references to the metaphoric heart are the rule rather than the exception in most music, popular, classical or traditional. Singers admonish us not to “break my heart,” or to have pity on an “achy, breaky heart.” Even Bob Dylan, who generally avoided the romantic traditionalism of music lyrics in his use of metaphor could tell us “I gave her my heart, but she wanted my soul.” (1967)

The Poetry of the Heart: Nor was Emily Dickenson concerned with anatomy when she wrote:

The heart asks pleasure first
And then, excuse from pain;
And then, those little anodynes
That deaden suffering.
(Dickenson, 1961, p. 536)

Imagine if we substituted the word “brain” for the “heart” in Dickenson’s poem. How would we react to the poem if we change that one word?

Heart Literature:

To the protagonist of Antoine de Saint Exupery’s classic, The Little Prince, the heart was a perceiving organ, not a biological pump:

One sees clearly only with the heart. Anything essential is invisible to the eyes. (De Saint Exupery, 2000, p. 63)

How would we react if the quote was: “One sees clearly only with the brain. Anything essential is invisible to the eyes.” This one change makes the quotation seem ridiculous. Clearly the metaphoric associations for the brain differ from those of the heart.

In Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austin’s Elizabeth Bennet rejects a marriage proposal with a heartfelt reply:

Do not consider me now as an elegant female intending to plague you, but as a rational creature speaking the truth from her heart. (p. 105).

Elizabeth also uses her heart as an input device:

(she) found the interest of the subject increase, and listened with all her heart; but the delicacy of it prevented further inquiry. (p. 76).
References to the heart as a metaphor can be found almost everywhere you look in literature, regardless of the period, the language or the genre surveyed.

Heart Movies: A brief scene from the highly successful Lord of the Rings illuminates the portrayal of the metaphor of the heart in many films and on television:

Aragorn: No news of Frodo
Gandalf: No word. Nothing.
Aragorn: We have time. Every day Frodo moves closer to Mordor.
Gandalf: Do we know that?
Aragorn: What does your heart tell you?
Gandalf: (meaningful pause) That Frodo’s alive. Yes. Yes, he’s alive.

(The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, 2004)

What if Aragorn had asked Gandalf: “What does your brain tell you?” It just doesn’t sound right.

In each of these examples, the metaphoric heart stands in for aspects of cognition that we resist assigning to the head. One would expect that in our computer saturated era, the heart would lose traction as a site of cognition. Why this doesn’t seem to be happening will be discussed at the end of this paper. It is time now to look at the origins of this persistent metaphor of the heart as the seat of cognition and emotion.