Here is the full transcript of cardiologist and author Sandeep Jauhar’s talk titled “How Your Emotions Change The Shape Of Your Heart” at TED conference. In this talk he explores the mysterious ways our emotions impact the health of our hearts and calls for a shift in how we care for our most vital organ.
Sandeep Jauhar – TED Talk TRANSCRIPT
No other organ, perhaps no other object in human life, is as imbued with metaphor and meaning as the human heart.
Over the course of history, the heart has been a symbol of our emotional lives. It was considered by many to be the seat of the soul, the repository of the emotions.
The very word “emotion” stems in part from the French verb “émouvoir,” meaning “to stir up.” And perhaps it’s only logical that emotions would be linked to an organ characterized by its agitated movement.
But what is this link? Is it real or purely metaphorical?
As a heart specialist, I am here today to tell you that this link is very real. Emotions, you will learn, can and do have a direct physical effect on the human heart.
But before we get into this, let’s talk a bit about the metaphorical heart. The symbolism of the emotional heart endures even today.
If we ask people which image they most associate with love, there’s no question that the Valentine heart would top the list. The heart shape, called a cardioid, is common in nature. It’s found in the leaves, flowers and seeds of many plants, including silphium, which was used for birth control in the Middle Ages and perhaps is the reason why the heart became associated with sex and romantic love.
Whatever the reason, hearts began to appear in paintings of lovers in the 13th century. Over time, the pictures came to be colored red, the color of blood, a symbol of passion.
In the Roman Catholic Church, the heart shape became known as the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Adorned with thorns and emitting ethereal light, it became an insignia of monastic love. This association between the heart and love has withstood modernity.
When Barney Clark, a retired dentist with end-stage heart failure, received the first permanent artificial heart in Utah in 1982, his wife of 39 years reportedly asked the doctors, “Will he still be able to love me?”
Today, we know that the heart is not the source of love or the other emotions, per se; the ancients were mistaken. And yet, more and more, we have come to understand that the connection between the heart and the emotions is a highly intimate one.
The heart may not originate our feelings, but it is highly responsive to them. In a sense, a record of our emotional life is written on our hearts. Fear and grief, for example, can cause profound cardiac injury. The nerves that control unconscious processes such as the heartbeat can sense distress and trigger a maladaptive fight-or-flight response that triggers blood vessels to constrict, the heart to gallop and blood pressure to rise, resulting in damage.
In other words, it is increasingly clear that our hearts are extraordinarily sensitive to our emotional system, to the metaphorical heart, if you will.
There is a heart disorder first recognized about two decades ago called “takotsubo cardiomyopathy,” or “the broken heart syndrome,” in which the heart acutely weakens in response to intense stress or grief, such as after a romantic breakup or the death of a loved one.
As these pictures show, the grieving heart in the middle looks very different than the normal heart on the left. It appears stunned and frequently balloons into the distinctive shape of a takotsubo, shown on the right, a Japanese pot with a wide base and a narrow neck. We don’t know exactly why this happens, and the syndrome usually resolves within a few weeks.
However, in the acute period, it can cause heart failure, life-threatening arrhythmias, even death. For example, the husband of an elderly patient of mine had died recently. She was sad, of course, but accepting. Maybe even a bit relieved. It had been a very long illness; he’d had dementia.
But a week after the funeral, she looked at his picture and became tearful. And then she developed chest pain, and with it, came shortness of breath, distended neck veins, a sweaty brow, a noticeable panting as she was sitting up in a chair — all signs of heart failure.
She was admitted to the hospital, where an ultrasound confirmed what we already suspected: her heart had weakened to less than half its normal capacity and had ballooned into the distinctive shape of a takotsubo. But no other tests were amiss, no sign of clogged arteries anywhere.
Two weeks later, her emotional state had returned to normal and so, an ultrasound confirmed, had her heart. Takotsubo cardiomyopathy has been linked to many stressful situations, including public speaking, domestic disputes, gambling losses, even a surprise birthday party.
It’s even been associated with widespread social upheaval, such as after a natural disaster. For example, in 2004, a massive earthquake devastated a district on the largest island in Japan. More than 60 people were killed, and thousands were injured.
On the heels of this catastrophe, researchers found that the incidents of takotsubo cardiomyopathy increased 24-fold in the district one month after the earthquake, compared to a similar period the year before.
The residences of these cases closely correlated with the intensity of the tremor. In almost every case, patients lived near the epicenter.
Interestingly, takotsubo cardiomyopathy has been seen after a happy event, too, but the heart appears to react differently, ballooning in the midportion, for example, and not at the apex.
Why different emotional precipitants would result in different cardiac changes remains a mystery. But today, perhaps as an ode to our ancient philosophers, we can say that even if emotions are not contained inside our hearts, the emotional heart overlaps its biological counterpart, in surprising and mysterious ways.
Heart syndromes, including sudden death, have long been reported in individuals experiencing intense emotional disturbance or turmoil in their metaphorical hearts.
In 1942, the Harvard physiologist Walter Cannon published a paper called “‘Voodoo’ Death,” in which he described cases of death from fright in people who believed they had been cursed, such as by a witch doctor or as a consequence of eating taboo fruit. In many cases, the victim, all hope lost, dropped dead on the spot.