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Heart Facts: How Well Do You Know Yours?

February seems the perfect time to explore the things we do, or don't, know about the complicated and much-discussed human heart.

With Valentine's Day just around the corner, everywhere we look we see the signs. Roses, doves and lovebirds. Of all the symbols we associate with Valentine's Day the heart is the one that most defines it. Juicy, plump and bulging red hearts adorn all things related to this holiday, devoted to love. Perfect heart images appear, almost magically, everywhere on everything, moments after the Christmas season has ended.

Many years ago I read an interesting novel by Rose Tremain called "Restoration." Set in mid- seventeenth century England, the story's lead character, Robert Merival, along with a fellow medical student, meet a man with an open wound on his chest that allows his beating heart to be seen and touched by the human hand. When Merival reaches in and squeezes the man's heart, the two marvel that when touched, the heart has no feeling. This organ, to which we ascribe all things relating to the most powerful of human emotions, itself has no feeling. The human heart has no feeling! Something about this "heart fact" intrigued me and February seemed the perfect time to explore the things we do, or don't, know about the complicated and much-discussed human heart.

If asked to put their hand on their heart, most people would place it on the left side of their chest, but in actuality, it sits closer to the center. The left lung is slightly smaller than the right one, to accommodate the heart. The heart weighs in at less than one pound, with the average woman's heart weighing only eight ounces and the man's only 10. And yes, it's true that women's hearts beat faster than men's. Some scientists believe that the longer the ring finger is in boys, the less chance they have of having a heart attack.

Here are more nitty gritty details about your heart. The heart is almost entirely muscle, the myocardium, and is strong enough to lift approximately 3,000 pounds, close to the weight of a compact car. Your heart beats about 35 million times a year ... 100,000 beats per day, 70 beats per minute, with enough strength to shoot blood a distance of 30 feet! Even at rest, your heart muscle works twice as hard as your leg muscles when sprinting. By the time we turn 70, the heart will have beat 2.5 billion times.

The heart is the first organ to show at 19 days and scientists believe that by eight weeks, when the embryo is only an inch long, the heart is fully developed. The heart starts beating in the unborn fetus before the brain is even formed. Scientists still don't know what makes it start beating, but they do know it is generated from within the heart itself and doesn't need a connection to the brain to keep beating. [1]

The origin of the traditional heart shape remains somewhat controversial, as the human heart only vaguely resembles the stylized images we see. If you clench your fists and put them side by side, that's roughly the size and shape of the adult human heart. So where did this universal heart shape symbol originate? Wikipedia reports that the seed of the silphium plant, used in ancient times as an herbal contraceptive, might be the source of the heart symbol. The heart symbol could also be considered to represent features of the human female body, or when viewed upside down part of the man's.

The heart has been used throughout history as a symbol of spiritual, emotional, moral and intellectual core of a human being. The symbol of the heart is used universally to represent love, particularly romantic love, its deep red color representing both blood and passion. Classical scientists and philosophers, including Aristotle, believed that the heart was the seat of thought, reason or emotion, often rejecting the brain's value and instead viewing the heart as the seat of the soul. The word "heart" originates from the Latin "cor," which means soul or feeling and in most cultures, references to the heart have continued to be used metaphorically for deep feelings and emotions.

Universally, the heart represents similar things. In the Chakra system, the fourth Chakra is located in the center of the chest and is called the Heart Chakra. This Chakra is associated with the aroma of the rose, with doves and the planet Venus. It was, after all, Venus -- the Goddess of Love -- who deemed the rose sacred. Her son Cupid, the rose, the dove and the heart have all become enduring symbols of Valentine's Day.

In the Chakra system, it's not red, but the color green that represents the Heart Chakra. Green symbolizes harmony, creativity, health, abundance and nature. The Heart Chakra is associated with unconditional love and compassion, the center where all feelings of love emanate. When we open our Heart Chakra, we become channels for universal love.

In some Chinese medicine, the heart "houses the mind," the health of the heart energy having a lot to do with our mental activity -- even our consciousness. The heart governs our ability to sleep soundly, think clearly and have a good memory. The healthy heart plays a principal role in our emotional health and our ability to experience meaningful relationships. The heart represents the element of fire. In the words of Mother Teresa, "A joyful heart is the inevitable result of a heart burning with love."

The Institute of HeartMath, a non-profit research organization, has made breakthrough discoveries in our understanding of the heart's intelligence, reporting that scientific evidence now shows that the heart is far more complex than we'd ever imagined, sending us emotional and intuitive signals to help govern our lives. The heart is much more than an organ that pumps blood, directing and aligning many systems in the body so they function harmoniously with each other. Although the heart is in constant communication with the brain, it makes its own decisions. The heart has it's own independent nervous system called "the brain in the heart." [2]

HeartMath also reports that positive emotions such as happiness, appreciation, compassion, care and love improve our hormonal balance and immune system response. The heart is able to retain memories and there are documented cases of heart transplant patients reporting that the implanted heart often brings up behaviors or memories that are not theirs, but those of the donor. HeartMath research has shown that our intelligence and intuition are heightened when we learn to listen more deeply to our own hearts. [3]

As Valentine's Day approaches, maybe it is the perfect time to be reminded to pay more attention to our heart. If laughter is the best medicine, give your heart a great workout, as laughing increases the blood flow for up to 45 minutes and this can improve your overall heart health.

Honoring our heart by stopping to smell the roses, listening to it and sharing laughs with loved ones is a good idea this time of year. Although the heart has no feeling physically, when you are in love, you really do "feel" with your heart. The heart, perhaps more than any other organ, feels and senses emotions and responds. Valentine's Day is one day to experience and feel love, but for your heart's sake, why not do this every moment of every day, all year long?

[1] Childre, Doc Lew, Howard Martin, and Donna Beech. The HeartMath Solution. San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 1999. Print. p.9

[2] Childre, Doc Lew, Howard Martin, and Donna Beech. The HeartMath Solution. San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 1999. Print. p.10

[3] Childre, Doc Lew, Howard Martin, and Donna Beech. The HeartMath Solution. San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 1999. Print. p. 23

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