Building a Bridge to the 8th Century, B.C.E

In order to understand the special significance given to the metaphor of the heart we must go back to the preliterate beginnings of our civilization. As Walter J. Ong (2004) noted, the particular character of human thought necessarily differed under conditions of what he called “primary orality.” Without written text to refer to, knowledge was passed on through oral recitation, and emphasis is placed on meter, rhyme and other mnemonic devices to enhance retention and recall. Speech is the dominant medium of communication.

Not just what we think, but the types of things we can think are affected by the available means of communication. In our literate and post-literate (what Ong called secondary orality) frames of reference, we are accustomed to locating thought and consciousness in the head. There is evidence that in cultures without writing, it was believed that thought originated in organs located in the central torso. According to Richard B. Onians (1973), the Greeks of the Classic period believed that consciousness resided in the lungs, with the heart contributing emotional content:

For the Homeric Greeks the [thymos, mind] is the 'spirit', and the breath that is consciousness, variable, dynamic, coming and going, changing as feeling changes and, we may add, as thought changes. Thought and feeling were, we saw, scarcely separable then, and it is still recognized that thought, even the abstract thought of the philosopher, affects breathing. (p. 50)
The pre-literate Greeks believed that breaths in the lungs were thoughts which were communicated through spoken words. Onians (1973) wrote that:
…the belief that thoughts are words and words are breath… would lead to the belief that the organs of breath, the lungs, are the organs of mind. This conception of words would be natural, inevitable among men unfamiliar with writing… These words or thoughts are kept in the lungs. (p. 50)
The lungs were the source of thought and thoughts expressed as breaths were the source of speech. Ong points out that in primary orality, words were actions. Thus, breath was a source of power. (Ong, 2004). Consider the origin of our term, “inspiration”. In Greek oral recitations, a god or goddess would breathe courage into an Achilles or a Hector or their men. Onians (1973) notes that:
A sudden access of courage or impulse or resolve with its accompanying sense of energy and power was conceived as the work of a god…Hence he, who has it ‘breathes’ it and the god, who gives it, ‘inspires’ or ‘breathes it into him… (p. 52)
From a contemporary perspective, it is incorrect to assume that references in classical literature to a “perceiving heart” or “divine inspiration” reflect a poetic metaphor rather than the pre-literate understanding of human anatomy. Lacking our modern knowledge of the circulatory system, the Classic Greeks believed that aspects of human consciousness didn’t reside just in the lungs, but were distributed throughout the chest, with different organs contributing different attributes. Expressions like “venting our spleen” when angered represent the residue of these kinds of beliefs. Onians (1973) noted that:
As late as the fifth century B.C.E., Greek literature preserves an archaic somatic psychology that does not conceptualize an integral psyche but attributes one function to the lungs, another to the liver, a third to the heart and so on. (p. 4)

Any basic illustration of the cardiovascular system shows how the ancients could view the heart and lungs as complementary vessels for human cognition.

The twin lobes of the lungs surround the heart and various major arteries and veins link the two organs. Excitement or stress can cause our hearts to beat faster and our breath to quicken. It was natural for the Greeks to connect these physical experiences with psychological conditions. These archaic perceptions persist today in the ways we describe our emotional states according to breath and pulse rate:

To pant with eagerness, to gasp or whistle with astonishment, to snort with indignation, to sob with grief, to yawn with weariness, to laugh with mirth, to sigh with sadness or relief are some of the more marked variations of breathing with feeling that have found distinct expression in everyday speech. The ‘breast heaving with emotion’ is a commonplace. “We ‘catch our breath’ at a sudden sound, ‘hold our breath’ in suspense, ‘breathe more freely’, and so the list might continue. (Onians. 1973 p. 50)

Juicy Meat

Certain types of media content persist in human cultures despite changes of language, the introduction of new technologies and the upheaval of social orders. Metaphors, such as the heart metaphor, shape much media content and constitute a powerful distraction from media structures. These content elements are so much a part of the way we think that they become transparent, hidden in plain site, and therefore difficult to bring to the foreground for examination. We become numb to the implications of the content, of its origins, and of the influence it has on the way we think and what we think about. Content of this type is what Lakoff and Turner (1989) called a basic conceptual metaphor:

We usually understand them in terms of common experiences. They are largely unconscious, though attention may be drawn to them. And they are widely conventionalized in language, that is, there are a great number of words and idiomatic expressions in our language whose interpretations depend upon these conceptual metaphors. (p. 50)
It is beyond the scope of this paper to consider all cultures that discounted the head as the source of thought or consciousness. However, a few examples from other early pre-literate and literate cultures will further illustrate my point.

Palpito, Ergo Cogito

During the process of mummification, ancient Egyptians discarded brain tissue as unnecessary for existence in the afterlife, but preserved the intestines, liver and other organs in special canopic jars for the journey. The heart, thought to be central to the individual’s “self” or consciousness, was left in place. As inheritors of many Egyptian beliefs,

Old Testament Hebrews also believed that the heart was the thinking organ. A prayer from Jewish Sabbath and Festival services (circa 400 B.C.E.) asks,
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable unto Thee, O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.” (Italics added) (Bokser, 1983, p. 189)
And another asks:
Open Thou my heart, O Lord, to Thy Torah that my soul may eagerly perform Thy commandments. (Bokser, 1983, p. 198)
A similar heart-centric view of cognition can be found in the foundation literatures or folklore of many cultures around the world.

As civilizations move from a predominantly oral mode to a written mode and alphabetic literacy becomes the prevailing medium of communication, the metaphor of the heart is transformed. As alphabetic literacy grew, the Romans abandoned the lungs as the location of anima. Onians (1973) asked:
What did the Romans believe to be the organs of consciousness, of mind? It is obvious that for them, even more than for the Greeks, the heart (cor) was important (cf. excors, vecors, etc.). (p.40)

When speech receded as the dominant medium of communication and writing gained ascendancy, the lungs were no longer believed to be the seat of thought. Literate Romans believed “Palpito, Ergo Cogito”. Thoughts and aspects of the thinking process, like memory, resided in the heart. As alphabetic literacy spread, the metaphor of the heart was adapted to allow literate characteristics.