PHYSIOPHILIA | PART I: THE HEART

by Melanie Jane Parker

1. The heart is a hollow muscle divided into three layers. These layers run in complete spirals, one after the other. The spiraled heart is nestled between and against the lungs; the heart and lungs are suspended within the ribcage, like a bird in a nest in a birdcage.

I am interested in developing a relationship with my anatomical heart. I’ve always known, vaguely, that it’s there, but then my use of the word there is indicative

of the distance I feel from it. If I really understood my heart to be closer than close, more immediate than immediate, I would know that it’s here—right here, at the center from which my arms extend.

Sometimes, when I have the opportunity, I lie face down, and I can feel the up-down of my belly along with the in-out of my breath, and I can hear the boom-boom of my muffled heartbeat in the corners

of my ears. In these moments in this position, I am aware of my heart, but I lose track of my heart more often than I notice it. Unlike a plant or animal or baby, the heart will not wither and die due to chronic lack of attention. The autonomic nervous system has the heart covered, along with the unceasing (for now) blooming and sliding of the lungs.

2. The cells of the conduction system grew in your mother’s womb before you even had a heart (the first functional organ in vertebrate embryos). The sinoatrial node, or pacemaker, located inside the right atrial inferior wall, electrifies the heart and sets the basic rhythm of heart rate. The brainstem and the electrical impulses of the heart’s conduction system

work tirelessly. Life insists upon itself.

The atria contract, the ventricles release, the atria release, the ventricles contract. The right ventricle pumps blood to the lungs, where the blood collects oxygen; the oxygenated  blood loops around to the left atrium, which pumps blood to the left ventricle, which

then transports oxygenated blood into the aorta (the largest artery in the body) which then delivers blood to the whole system. The cycle occurs approximately 100,000 times a day, or 35 million times a year. At the time of this writing I am nearly twenty-seven-and-a-half-years of age, or 962,500,000 heartbeats old.

3.The most glaring challenge to relating to my heart is my resistance to my body as organism. I’m a thinker, not a feeler: in therapy I answer the questions How did that make you feel? and How do you feel right now? with I think I feel ____________. It’s the difference between thinking and knowing, between fact and truth, between the symbolic and the real. My anatomy teacher says that her teacher says that there are two types of decisions: a brain decision and a heart decision. You live in and through your nerves or

 

you live in and through your blood. But, she emphasizes, our circulatory system and our nervous system are holding hands all throughout the body, from the head down to the toes, coursing along like inextricable tributaries. You live in and through your nerves and you live in and through your blood. Allow me to point out that I balk at the use of heart as metaphor, and this is for two reasons. 1. The heart is stunning and special as is, no need to gussy it up; 2. I have a like-hate relationship with New Age buzzwords,

particularly all this talk of opening the heart. I do not want to open my heart. I would actually like my heart to remain securely fastened, contracting and releasing, roiling and undulating, day in and day out. But I understand that the purpose of these metaphors is to bring us more near to a thing which is inseparable from us yet totally confounding, something we feel the need to represent and translate so that we might feel more at ease with it, like God.

4. The heart is said to be and do many things. It is said to be made of glass, it is said to break. It is prone to aching, pounding, racing, clenching, wrenching, warming. The heart swells, the heart betrays, the heart goes out, the heart is a lonely hunter, the heart wants what it wants. It can be poured out, ripped out, tugged at, attacked, and totally eclipsed. It can be made of stone, gold, pure love. The heart can be at the center of things, at the center of the matter, it can be big or half or full.

There is a physiological basis for some of these claims,

namely heartache and heartbreak. Studies show the physical sensation of having your heart broken or hurt has something to do with the vagus nerve, or the tenth cranial nerve, which travels from your brainstem, through your heart, and into your gut. This research also lends credence to the feeling that one has acted or spoken from one’s heart.

Of course, the influence of the vagus nerve is not always positive. I have made a few heart-based decisions against my nearly tyrannical intellectual judgment. Afterward I asked myself, What was

I thinking? A chorus of living and dead poets would gladly say that my brain had little to do with it, that those decisions were made from my heart—those decisions were blood decisions, for better or for worse. A panel of living and dead philosophers and theologians might then argue that it takes a long time (somewhere around an eternity or several reincarnations) to see whether our decisions are correct or incorrect. Still others might insist it’s a foolish enterprise to weigh our brain decisions against our heart decisions, and to that I would say, Fair enough.

 

5. The apex of the heart is the lower left point, even though “apex” is Latin for top, peak summit. But if you were to lie down at an angle and use your latent superpower to visually penetrate through layers of muscles and fat and tissue and veins and nerves and bones, the lower left point of your elevated heart might indeed resemble a peak summit.

If you were an astronomer, you might hear apex of the the heart and think of the solar apex, path of the

solar system as it traverses the Milky Way. If you were an entomologist, you might think of the anterior corner of a butterfly’s wing. If you were a marine biologist, you might think of the tip of the spire of a snail’s shell. If you were a dentist, you might think of the root of a tooth. My anatomy teacher likes to put us through exercises in which we use the apex of the heart like a navigational tool: rolling from back to belly, walking from this corner to that corner, all as though the apex is indeed the planets and stars moving our inner space into outer space. Because I am a thinker

first and a feeler second, I appreciate visual representations of body parts —illustrations, models, simulations, or, in the case of the heart, simply bringing my fist flush against the center of my chest. There are two reasons why this works for me. 1. It provides a rough idea of the size of the heart; 2. It feels good.

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