Heart and Mind
The Emerging Science of Cardiopsychology
Through the centuries, the heart has been seen as the center of psychological and physical health. The heart is a four-chambered pump responsible for delivering blood, rich in life-sustaining nutrients to the rest of the body. Due to its vital role, the heart is perhaps unrivaled in its ability to influence the body as a whole. Impairment of heart function, resulting from a heart attack or electrical dissynchrony—disruption of the heart’s electrical system—can sever
the supply line of oxygen-laden red blood cells to the brain, liver, kidneys and other vital organs. However, recent research is unraveling the heart’s role as a key player in many psychological aspects.
Given its unparalleled role in life support and as an emotional control center, the description of the heart by Prophet Muhammad, salla Allahu wa `alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings be upon him),comes as no surprise: “… There is a piece of flesh in the body; if it becomes good (reformed) the whole body becomes good, but if it gets spoilt the whole body gets spoilt, and that is the heart” (Sahih Bukhari 1:2:49).
At the most basic biological understanding, it is clear to see how the heart plays a major role in psychological or even emotional events in the human body. After all, the heart is the energy treasury of the body and it budgets its beats and circulation according to physical demands. The environment modulates those demands; when the environment presents a danger, the heart is the first to respond to acclimate the body to the situation.
Let us imagine that a student is seated in class; his mind is cognizant of the fact that he has not studied the past material. The professor needs only to utter the words “pop quiz” and the cardio-nervous interface is quickly activated. The brain interprets the stimulus as danger and signals the adrenal gland to send adrenaline to the heart, which speeds up the heart rate. The heart begins to beat faster and, as the danger increases—when the quiz questions resemble a foreign language—the heart begins to race. This response is known as the flight-or-fight response (or in the student’s case, this process is known as failing).
This paradigm prevails in all situations of strong emotions including news that triggers major grief, anxiety, surprise or even happiness. A less severe version of the flight-or-fight response exists throughout our lifetime as the heart rate is continually modulated to meet the demands of the environment. The key behind this process is maintaining equilibrium or what is known in biological systems as homeostasis. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that people who live stressful, worrisome and otherwise psychologically unstable lives are at an increased risk of developing heart related problems. However, beyond this is a growing body of evidence that is emphasizing the heart’s importance in a deeper aspect of psychological health.
Recent studies have shown that some forms of heart disease also have a dramatic impact on cognition and psychological symptoms such as depression. Interestingly, there seemed to be a mutually impacting relationship between heart health and psychological health. In other words, psychological conditions seemed to bring about physiological changes in the heart and vice versa.
Studies at Greifswald University in Germany included 2,164 participants and showed that psychological stress (i.e. stress, depression, anxiety, fear, and frustration) was associated with increased plaque buildup around the carotid artery (the artery that supplies blood to the brain). This heart condition is known as carotid atherosclerosis and causes severe heart complications such as heart attacks, strokes and heart failure.
In retrospect, cognitive impairments have been observed in patients who have experienced heart failure. Another study performed at the St Bartholemew’s Hospital in London attempted to measure the level of cognitive impairment in heart failure patients. Researchers measured a psychological parameter known as vigilance, which tests how fast one reacts to a signal. Results showed that heart failure patients reacted 48 percent slower than healthy participants.
Among the most severe cognitive impairments occur in children suffering from congenital heart conditions that not only result in psychosocial disease, but also dramatically produce deficits in academic performance and intelligence quotient. Despite cardiac surgery where the abnormalities are addressed, studies have shown that these psychological deficits persist post-operatively. Ischemic heart disease, a condition that restricts blood circulation from one part of the body, has been linked to obsessional neurosis (an obsessive compulsive disorder) and phobic anxiety (a condition where anxiety is triggered by a perceived danger). Indeed, there is a mounting body of evidence that shows the interrelatedness between the heart and human psychology.
Given these direct correlations between the physiological health of the heart and cognitive function, it is not surprising to see how Allah, subhanahu wa ta`ala (the Exalted and Glorified), also relates the two: “Verily, in this is a Message for any that has a heart and understanding or who gives ear and earnestly witnesses (the truth)” (Qur’an 50:37). Care for the heart is therefore of utmost importance, as it affects not only physical well being but also psychological health.
The character of any person is defined through his actions. Since the health of the heart affects psychological health, it also affects human behavior. Consequently, diseases of the heart, whether physical or emotional, ultimately influence who we are as people. Prophet Muhammad (saws) said, “A strong Believer is better and is more lovable to Allah than a weak Believer …” (Sahih Muslim 33:6441). The health of the heart, and thus the strength of the body, stems from two factors; lifestyle (amount and type of food eaten, amount of exercise, etc.) and one’s personal connection with the Lord of the worlds. Physically, the health of the heart is maintained through a balanced diet and exercise. Emotionally, the health of the heart is maintained through the acquisition of knowledge.
Prophet Muhammad (saws), when asked about righteousness, replied, “Consult your heart. Righteousness is that about which the soul feels tranquil and the heart feels tranquil …” (Nawawi 27). These words are a shining beacon of light in a world where the shroud of confusion has otherwise cast darkness. Adhering to this advice requires not only the consultation of the heart, but the preservation of its health as well. After all, a hardened heart could hardly be expected to provide righteous direction. The acquisition of knowledge and a healthy lifestyle or more generally, the application of Islam as a way of life is the key to a healthy heart. ̹