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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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    Mar 27 2012: Hi Andrew!!!!!!!!!!

    The first thing I want to say is probably off topic but it is something that I always tend to do or notice. I tend to look at person’s hands and fingers. I do not know if there is a common association with fingers but finger types and shapes can determine what a person is interested in or capable of doing. Long, slender fingers can signify a musician’s hand. I guess the length enables proficient musicians to reach certain keys or strings, etc. that others cannot.

    Anyway back to your question, the one of the first things that came to my mind is something that my dad says when I am looking for something that I have misplaced, “Look with your eyes and not with your mouth.” I know it sounds incredibly silly because you cannot see with your mouth. The only connection I can make with your question is that this saying tells me that if multiple sensory parts are active, it is difficult to be aware of all of them maybe due to signal interference. For those who lose a sense, the others become more sensitive and stronger.
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      Mar 27 2012: The first thing that came to my mind when reading this question was the phantom sensations felt by those who had lost a limb. Feelings generated by the remaining nerve endings being stimulated accidentally by other neurons firing nearby. However, in many ways this is still very interesting because lets say in the case of someone who has lost there arm, they feel their hand even though they no longer have it. In this case the wires (neurons) are not re-purposed (neuroplasticity) and the sensation remains that of the lost extremity. It is as if all of the wiring and feeling of that part of the nervous system belongs to the hand whether attached or not. So all in all the connection between body parts and feelings (in this case not emotions) is very direct.

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