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Heart

A History

By Sandeep Jauhar
15-minute read
Audio available
Heart: A History by Sandeep Jauhar

Heart (2018) examines an organ that has baffled humanity for centuries. Be delving into the history of the heart, both from a biological and a cultural perspective, it explains why the heart plays such an important role in human history.

  • Medical students
  • Patients with health issues affecting the heart
  • Historians of science

Sandeep Jauhar is a leading heart specialist at the Long Island Jewish Medical Center. He has also regularly contributed medical articles to the New York Times, and is the author of two other books, Doctored (2014) and Intern (2007). He lives in Long Island with his family. 

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Heart

A History

By Sandeep Jauhar
  • Read in 15 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 9 key ideas
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Heart: A History by Sandeep Jauhar
Synopsis

Heart (2018) examines an organ that has baffled humanity for centuries. Be delving into the history of the heart, both from a biological and a cultural perspective, it explains why the heart plays such an important role in human history.

Key idea 1 of 9

The heart has been a symbol of human emotions ever since the Middle Ages.

Children love exploring the world around them and figuring out how it works. The author, Sandeep Jauhar, was no different. As a teenager, he once decided that for a school science project he would measure the electrical signals emanating from a frog’s heart. To do this, he’d have to dissect one. Unfortunately, all he ended up doing was causing the frog a tremendous amount of pain.

It was at that moment the Jauhar’s mother found him, weeping at what he’d done to the poor creature.

She tenderly explained to him that his heart was too small to take on a task that required such developed empathy: a small heart wouldn’t yet be courageous enough.

Jauhar’s mother was tapping into a well-worn metaphor, but that doesn’t make it any less potent – for centuries the heart has been associated with feelings such as courage.

It was in Renaissance Europe that the heart first began to be seen as the seat of human courage. Consequently, depictions of hearts found their way onto coats of arms as symbols of loyalty and bravery. The very word “courage” is derived from the Latin word for heart, “cor.” 

The logical consequence of this metaphor is that people with small hearts lack courage and strength. This might result in them admitting defeat early on when beginning difficult tasks.

Interestingly, this metaphor stretches much further than the cultures of Europe. Take Jauhar’s grandmother as an example. She used to regularly chastise her family, telling them to "take heart” when she felt they were about to give up on a venture.

Most famously, of course, the heart is a metaphor for love. It’s been that way since the Middle Ages. In fact, the connection between heart and love is so strong that if you ask people what image they associate most with love, they’ll likely visualize a valentine heart.

There’s even a scientific name for this shape. It’s called a cardioid, and you see it everywhere in nature – certain leaves, flowers and seeds all occur as cardioids.

One such example is the silphium plant. Its heart-shaped seeds were used throughout the Middle Ages as a natural contraceptive.

It may be because of this usage that this particular heart shape became so linked with courtship and sexual behavior.

The heart shape found its way into courtship paintings of the era and, from then on, the cardioid heart has become the symbol of romance in the West.

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