The heart is just a pump, and the moon is made of cheese

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Science may claim hearts are interchangeable, but creatives should think twice before they ignore the advice of this resilient little muscle

Do you need your brain?

According to the Ancient Egyptians, you don’t. For them, it was just there to provide the stuff that runs out of your nose. When the time came to prepare a body for the most important journey it would ever make  —  the one to the next life  —  they scooped the brain out through the nostrils and threw it away.

The heart, on the other hand, was a different matter. It was accorded loving reverence.

In fact, for most of recorded history, in virtually every culture, the heart has been considered sacred. The seat of the emotions. Numerous phrases in our language attest to this. Follow your heart, make your heart sing, "disheartened," have a heart-to-heart etc. This pattern is repeated in countless other languages. In Chinese, for example, words for emotions are compounds of the word heart. Heart-pain means sorrow. Heart-black means cruel. Similarly, in Thai, heart-water means generous. Heart-hot means angry. Poets have always known this, but an eminent heart surgeon I heard recently on a documentary disagreed. According to Consultant Surgeon Dr. Francis Wells from Papworth Hospital, Cambridge in the UK, the poets were wrong.

Dr. Wells said, "99.9% of poets have never seen the human heart. … The heart is a bunch of muscles with some nerves that stimulate it and some chemical receptors which allow it to respond to chemical and neurological stimuli…in reality it’s a pump, that’s what it does. I know I can take the heart out, and you can still fall in love."

What on earth did he mean by that? Obviously it can’t be literally true. If he took your heart out you would die. But the distinguished surgeon clearly thinks that love is just a set of bio-chemical reactions in the brain. Nothing to do with the heart.

This elevation of head over heart started in the 18th century with French philosopher Rene Descartes, who famously said that animals didn’t feel pain. To prove the point, he dissected his wife’s dog alive. The howls of pain, he claimed, were just the creaking of mechanical clockwork. Since then, science has never felt comfortable with emotion, because you can’t put it in a test tube and analyse it.

And quite often, when science can’t explain something it tends to deny that it exists. In the ‘50s for example a branch of psychology arose called behaviorism under the auspices of one Frank Skinner that maintained nothing could be said about our inner life, our loves and fears and joys and sorrows, all the things that, in fact, make us human. Only what could be measured — input and output, stimulus and response — was the legitimate concern of science. To the common folk it sounds crazy, but there is almost no opinion so bizarre that the men and women of science haven’t regarded it as Gospel at one time or another. In the first half of the 20th century, for example, there was a learned debate in scientific circles about whether babies felt pain or not.

Marc Chagall said, "If I create from the heart, nearly everything works; if from the head, almost nothing." This is the point. Creativity comes from the heart, and when we want to persuade someone, when we want to move them, we talk to their heart using stories. Moving people is, after all, the business we are in.

To illustrate the point, think of all the stories you can remember hearing at your grandmother’s knee. Snow White, Cinderella, Robin Hood … They are countless. And you remember them all. Now think of all the PowerPoint presentations you remember. Can you even remember the one you saw yesterday? Memory is inextricably bound up with emotion. The engine of story is emotion. But we have been taught to distrust emotion. In school they teach us to think rationally, using logic and analysis. Facts. Emotion is seen as immature. "Don’t be so emotional" is a put-down. When was the last time anyone told you to stop being so rational?

Well, I don’t care what the heart surgeon says. Like many people, I’m pretty sure I feel things in my heart, and it’s not just a pump. So I was delighted to come across some research recently that claims there is a network of 20,000 neurons — that is "brain cells" — in the heart. Some people are even calling it the little brain in the heart. Could there be a physiological basis for the folk wisdom? Maybe your grandmother was right all along. Cardiologists are quick to deny that this discovery in any way legitimizes the ancient beliefs about the heart. But then they would, wouldn’t they?

Perhaps we should remind them of the astonishing case of heart transplant recipient, Sonny Graham. In 1996 he received a heart from a donor who had committed suicide by shooting himself. After the operation Sonny met the donor’s widow. They fell in love and got married. They lived happily for 12 years, until Sonny committed suicide by shooting himself.

It’s an amazing story, and the newspapers all led with the suicide angle. But the thing that intrigues me is the fact that the same heart fell in love twice with the same woman, even after it had moved to a new body. If you ask me, this story blows the opinion of the learned heart surgeon quoted at the start of this article right out of the water. He said he could take your heart out and you would still fall in love. Actually it’s the other way round. You can take away the body and the heart will still fall in love.

Take my advice, ignore the boffins and follow your pump!

Tham Khai Meng is Worldwide Chief Creative Officer with Ogilvy & Mather.

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