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Andrew Leader

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How are different body parts connected to the emotions we traditionally associate with them?

This week in my bioelectricity class, I learned about cardiac electrophysiology. Afterwords, I read an article about the growing field of neurocardiology: http://madurasinghe.blogspot.com/2008/06/neurocardiology-brain-in-heart.html. The heart’s nervous system contains over 40,000 neurons, and is sufficiently complex that it is referred to by some as its own “little-brain”. This little-brain communicates directly with the medulla in the brain-stem, both sending and receiving signals that have to do with hart rate, hormones, chemicals, and pressure in the heart. These signals help regulate other signals to blood vessels, glands and other organs, but they also “cascade up into the higher centers of the brain, where they may influence perception, decision making and other cognitive processes.”

This article made me wonder: Does perhaps the term “thinking with your heart” have a biological basis after all? How did the heart become the symbol of love? How might this association relate to the connection between emotion and heart health, and what makes up this connection in the first place?

To explore the biological basis of emotional experience, particularly as we traditionally associate these experiences with different parts of the body, I also watched the TED talk “Trust, Morality – and Oxytocin” (http://blog.ted.com/2011/11/01/trust-morality-and-oxytocin-paul-zak-on-ted-com/), in which Paul Zak talks about how oxytocin (a mammalian hormone) increases trustworthiness, generosity, empathy, while oxytocin release is inhibited by high stress.

And so I ask the TED Community: What connections might exist between body parts and the meanings we associate with them? For example, when we say we have a “gut feeling,” how might it relate to the activity of our autonomic nervous system on the GI tract? What about the emotional meanings we associate with the eyes, mouth, hands, and so on? Could age-old associations between body parts and emotion be rooted in biology?

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  • Jaana T

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    Mar 24 2012: I've discovered a lot of those insightful sayings while reading about the history of my language. We don't pay attention to it but ordinary everyday language contains numerous ancient expressions, that very often make a connection to the 'supernatural' in the similar way you referred in your post, eg "stiff necked" is what we use for "stubborn" and it was genuinly believed that stubborn people have stiff necks. In any case, knowing about the past of your language helps you to understand your ancestors and the belief system they lived in.

    Some examples of sayings in Estonian going back as far as the Ice-age:

    - the referrals to hand: "in the hand of the cold/sun/rain/wind" / "he was bitten from the hands of dogs" / "to order" = "to give order's with ones hand"...
    Explanation: power over human beings was symbolised by a hand. The hand in all those expressions always occurs in singular which was the integral part of our ancestors that everything formed a whole, also the paired parts of body which were always used in singular. If one wanted to talk about 1 hand, they had to say "half a hand"

    - use of body parts as spatial references: "on the ear" = next to / "on the head" = on top / "on the root" = nearby. I've heard that aborigines are able to know cardinal points at all times, so they will use "to the south" instead of "to my right" etc. Kind of cool if you think about it...
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      Mar 24 2012: Hi Jaana, thanks for the response!

      Concerning the origin of these parts of language, I hadn't even considered belief systems. When you think about it though, it makes a lot of sense: Just think about how often people make reference to the New Testament in predominantly Christian societies in everyday language. Next time someone sneezes, rather than saying "Bless you!" I'll try saying "Sorry your nose feels weird!" and see how that goes over.

      But of course you can tell that, as a Science and Engineering Student, my interests lie predominantly in the hints that language and emotion can give us about the body and biology and vice-versa. Given that we, here, are drawing a strong connection between language and religion, would it be too completely heretical of me to ask if there is a connection between someone's belief system and biology?

      Before you jump out of your seat, no, I'm not claiming that the Bible was just people's minds playing tricks on themselves. There's a body of anthropological research pointing to a natural human tendency to have some form of religion, supernatural beliefs, etc. This is a rhetorical question because I don't think Science is at a place where we can answer it, nor would it be proper of us to speculate here, but does Biology play a role in this human tendency toward religion? If so, via what mechanism? Does it also exist in animals?

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