Language of the head or heart?
Posted by robertpriddy on July 26, 2012
It is universally said that the human heart is filled with hopes, wishes, desires. The characteristics are what promoters of Advaita call ‘ego’. So there is much confusion about the so-called ‘heart’, and much conflation of terms altogether in spiritual talk about the heart. It is also referred to as ‘the seat of the emotions’, ‘the seat of consciousness’, even ‘the golden womb’ (Sathya Sai Baba)
Religious – or more commonly today ‘spiritual’ – conceptions of the human heart are always vague, never defined in any practical or precise way, but always assume the heart is the seat of emotions. For example the slogan used by Sathya Sai Baba. “There is only one language, the language of the heart”. His absurd distinction between ´’head and heart’ and how he applied it in education (inset scanned text excerpt) is not uncommon in religions and New Age substitutes today. The schism between the rational and the irrational mind of much traditional religiosity – as seen in the contrast created between sacred and profane living – is based on the fantasy of two different realities – that of worldly life and a supposed eternal spiritual realm. It underpins most religious moralism, suppression of the individual, the critical mind and not least arises with the age-old stigmatization of women.
The tendency is to identify the heart with positive values like forgiveness, compassion, sympathy and altruism. (as in modern usages like “have a heart”, “from the depths of my heart”). Meanwhile this overlooks the common usages like “hate in the heart”, people’s heart as filled with envy, ill-will, even evil, ’black-hearted’ and other emotions or values regarded as negative (mistrust, loathing, revengefulness) which have also long been related to the idea of the human heart. All this is sheer obfuscation of the true state of affairs, which is that the emotions are generated and sustained by neuron connections in the brain and they are virtually inseparably bound up with thought, arising from the brain’s neuronic pathways. Therefore, the contention that “sacred qualities” of the heart – as opposed to rationally guided worldly activities – are ‘positive in nature’ and “cannot be acquired through the study of books” since they reside in our hearts is a confused and out-dated obscurantism. ‘The heart’ as conceived in religious sentiment is not an entity, the heart is a necessary organ of the body and no more than that.
Despite all that, the heart has nothing specific to do with being human. All mammals have hearts, all have the same basic functions at the various levels of evolution. However, from ancient times the crucial nature of the heart for life was observed and it was variously concluded that it is the organ that houses the human personality, where the personality resides etc. and it therefore was seen as the seat of human emotions, since it speeds when excited or fearful and so forth. We now know with absolute certainty that it is no such thing. It’s functions in pumping blood to convey oxygen etc. keeps the physical body alive. It is exclusively the human brain that is ‘the seat of human emotions, thought and intelligence’. So the fanciful opposition so often quoted by those still bound up in religious views, or in language traditions and poetic iconography, between ‘the head and the heart’ is an empirically empty and rationally false construct.
Apart from being false – hence misleading – and essentially vague (not being based on facts but only on traditional superstitions) this dichotomy has many bad consequences for those who adopt it in respect of themselves… especially in connection with following the dictates of ’spiritual masters’ or ‘gurus’. Since the emotions cannot easily be transformed from negative to positive – certainly not though acts of will – those ‘aspirants’ who harbour negative emotions will often suffer from ineradicable guilt feelings, which the basic feelings remain in the subconscious (i.e. or “in the heart”) and will weaken self-esteem and confidence, tending to reject rational arguments about the matter and so distorting perceptions and social relations outside the sect or cult to which they adhere. Experience shows that such emotions can usually only be modified through a long process of maturing or possible by rational forms of psychological therapy.
When feelings are detached from rationality, judgement or are in opposition to the thinking mind – or in the spiritual jargon ‘the head’ – they are irrational and projective. In depth psychology these have been shown to arise from the subconscious mind and will often be disturbed, obsessive or compulsive and involve strong affect. Contrariwise, reasonable feelings, sympathies and antipathies— they are not irrational or unduly projective, being based on rational value judgements, natural desires and the concerns and cares of normal life.
The supposed qualitative difference between speaking and acting “from the heart” and “from the head” (which is seen as comparatively cold and even negative) is a miasma. That one can distinguish roughly between ‘the language of the heart’ and ‘of the head’ does not alter this false dualism. In all cases it is the brain and not the heart which controls the feelings, and which also controls the forms of expression used both for feelings and abstract thought. The prosaic and the poetic are simply different general forms of language with each their appropriate spheres. The precise type of prose such as is used in non-fictional (and fictional) literature, standard journalism, the many sciences from medicine to mathematics, the law, philosophy, technology, engineers in and of course, also in conversation and much everyday usage is neither more nor less an expression of human values than are the symbolic and emotive styles which use literary, tenuous, and sublime imagery. The accurate language of prose and non-fiction is less open to wide and often false or contrived interpretations.
A monograph on “The History of the Heart” by Ole Martin Høystad of Syddansk University (215 pages) which combs through religion and philosophy from the earliest records up to modern time charts how the heart became a symbol of our essential desires. The work is mainly historical and – though it illustrates the wide range of different and conflicting speculations about the nature of the heart as a symbol – lacks sufficient critical insight into the overall fallacy which makes that non-mental and non-emotional organ into something more and ‘higher’ than the brain, compared to which it is a relatively primitive organism.