Heart and Gut

Written by A/Prof Lim Tit Meng, Chief Executive, Science Centre Singapore

Heart
Gray’s Anatomy Plate 501

The heart is a vital organ in our body, serving as a mechanical pump to circulate blood to all body parts.  It is also like an exchange depot for oxygenated and deoxygenated blood circulation to and from the lungs, without mixing the flows.  The gut is part of our digestive system, a general term covering the stomach and intestines.   The function of our gut is to break down the food we ingest, extract and absorb nutrients, minerals and water, and discharge the indigestible as waste.

In the Chinese language, heart is ‘xin’ <心> and gut is ‘chang’ <肠>.   Interestingly, we often hear of people using ‘xin’ and ‘chang’ to describe feelings and character traits as if they are organs that control our emotions or motives.   For example, a Chinese phrase ‘tie shi xin chang’
<铁石心肠> describes a person who has no compassion and love for others. The phrase literally means ‘heart and gut made of iron and stone’.   A man who flirts with many ladies is referred to as having a ‘flowery heart’ or ‘huaxin’ <花心>.  A person with evil motives is considered to have bad heart and gut, or ‘huai xin chang’ <坏心肠>!A scheming and wicked woman is one with the heart and gut of snake and scorpion, ‘she xie xin chang’
<蛇蝎心肠>!

Even in English phrases, the heart is used in expression of personal traits as in ‘so and so is a warm-hearted or cold-hearted person’.  We also hear people use the phrase “my gut feeling is that …” while a very sad person is one with a ‘broken heart’.

Stomach
Gray’s Anatomy Plate 613

Why the heart and gut are associated with thought processes and emotions is intriguing. It could be due to the lack of scientific understanding on anatomical structure and function when a language was developed.  Or it could be due to the manifestation of physiological links of our brain to our heart and gut.  It is quite true that sometimes our gut churns when we are feeling bad, and when we are feeling down we lose appetite.  Some emotional stress can even make us vomit.  Our heart can feel burns or heaviness as a result of an emotional experience.  Lately there was a report of a bomb sniffer dog that died of a ‘broken heart’ after the soldier who handled him was killed on duty in the battle field.

It will be interesting to find out if in other languages, the heart and gut are also associated with feelings and character traits.  My ‘gut feeling’ in ‘my heart’ is that they too have similar expressions.

On the other hand, does our heart or our gut also affect our brain functions and hence indirectly we are a result of what our gut and heart make us to be?

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