Does Your Heart Control Your Thoughts?

Benjamin Zimmerman
17 min readAug 12, 2021
Photo by Count Chris on Unsplash

Okay, I admit that my title is meant to be a bit clickbaity. But with clickbaity gusto, I’ll double down and begin by reminding you that Aristotle, who many well-educated people regard as a pretty smart dude, believed that the conscious mind resided in the heart. If you put down all your modern knowledge for a minute, it’s easier to find the idea quite sensible. Consider this utterly imaginary vignette. Aristotle recognizes, through introspection, that when his mind races with emotion, his heart also changes its pace. Thus, Aristotle hypothesizes that the heart is the seat of the soul and decides to do some experiments. He designs an experiment and replicates it in many different types of animals. In this experiment, Aristotle lesions the animal’s heart, and in every case, all behavior indicative of consciousness immediately ends. The result strongly matches some observational data, where accidents caused lesions to the hearts of humans. He also discovers a method to stop the heartbeat through his studies, but only for brief periods. He boldly asks his research assistant to stop his own heart but only for 45 seconds. In this conclusive study, he finds that when his heart is arrested, he immediately becomes unconscious and remains so for the duration of time his heart is stopped. Yet, when his heart begins functioning again, he quickly regains consciousness.

Now we know better than this, and we confidently believe that the nervous system is the seat of the soul. But the fact that such a plausible experiment could lead to such a conclusion should remind us how intimately the vascular system is connected to the brain. I have become obsessed with this connection, and I would love to start my own lab to continue studying it if any universities would hire me (*hint hint*). I want to convince you that cerebrovascular function in the brain is more important than you previously thought. I’ll start by discussing how it’s important for overall brain health. The brain’s vascular system is simultaneously its supply chain distributor and waste management system. Even if you haven’t really thought about it before, I think it is pretty intuitive that if the supply chain breaks down and waste isn’t managed, bad things are going to happen. Then I’ll take things up a notch and talk about how the brain’s vascular function impacts measurements in neuroscience and what that…

Benjamin Zimmerman

Neuroscientist whimsically musing about the brain, cognition, and reaching our fullest potential