The Heart Remembers
I recently watched a fascinating programme on the strange experiences of a number of heart transplant patients. In recovery many felt that their personalities had in some way changed. Despite not having access to details of their donors’ lives, after experiencing marked differences in their own behaviour, many sought to know something of the people whose hearts had given them a second chance. There were some interesting discoveries. One middle aged man had felt compelled to train hard physically, despite having little inclination in his pre-transplant days. It later transpired that his donor had been a driven Hollywood stunt man, extremely fit and active. Another man – who had little education – felt compelled to write, penning romantic poetry to his surprised and delighted wife only to be later informed that his donor had been a keen writer and poet.
Some scientists have been studying these unexpected changes, delving deeper into the heart’s physiological function for clues. They believe that they have discovered a collection of neurons in the heart, similar to that in the brain, surmising that the heart plays an important role in perception and memory function. Experiments seem to suggest that the heart registers experience prior to the brain, sending it messages, and through its own cluster of neurons, retaining memories. This challenges the current assumptions about the brain’s dominance and suggests that intelligence and cognition stem not only from our grey matter; we possess emotional intelligence, the heart and brain supporting each other’s functions. This might explain heart transplant patients who seem to be reliving the memories of their donors, particular in the areas of life that once provoked love and emotion, areas that brought pleasure or satisfaction.
How wonderful to think that the metaphors of the heart might prove more tangible. We all instinctively know that the heart is a powerful organ, not merely a sophisticated pump. When we speak of love that is deeply felt or lost, how often do we place a hand to our hearts? In grief and sadness, the tug in our chests is not imagined. How apt that all the poetic musings of centuries might hold a deeper wisdom about the extraordinary power of our bodies.
When the donor’s heart is removed and transported, it lives for only a few hours; lives but does not pump. It was moving to watch a heart, once reattached in its new home, immediately starting to flex, the memory of its own beating resonating strongly in each of its cells. It is equally moving to think that the memory of its loves, sorrows and joys might also still pulse within it, circulating the experiences of another human being, as easily as blood, around the system of a new body and being, creating an extraordinary bond between donor and recipient. The heart is the mythic seat of our empathy; there can be no more powerfully empathetic experience than to feel the life of the dead, resurrected within us, expressed in such touching symbiosis. Perhaps we all experience this to some extent in the genetic memories we inherit. There are many cases of descendants unknowingly following eerily similar paths to that of long dead ancestors, the links between us more deeply mysterious and magical than most of us can comprehend.
This ended up being a rather nice discovery for Valentine’s Day, along with the following two poems by Seamus Heaney – a man who can do little wrong:
Love, I shall perfect for you the child
Who diligently potters in my brain
Digging with heavy spade till sods were piled
Or puddling through muck in a deep drain.
Yearly I would sow my yard-long garden.
I’d strip a layer of sods to build the wall
That was to keep out sow and pecking hen.
Yearly, admitting these, the sods would fall.
Or in the sucking clabber I would splash
Delightedly and dam the flowing drain
But always my bastions of clay and mush
Would burst before the rising autumn rain.
Love, you shall perfect for me this child
Whose small imperfect limits would keep breaking:
Within new limits now, arrange the world
And square the circle: four walls and a ring.
The Guttural Muse
Late summer, and at midnight
I smelt the heat of the day:
At my window over the hotel car park
I breathed the muddied night airs off the lake
And watched a young crowd leave the discotheque.
Their voices rose up thick and comforting
As oily bubbles the feeding tench sent up
That evening at dusk – the slimy tench
Once called the ‘doctor fish’ because his slime
Was said to heal the wounds of fish that touched it.
A girl in a white dress
Was being courted out among the cars:
As her voice swarmed and puddled into laughs
I felt like some old pike all badged with sores
Wanting to swim in touch with soft-mouthed life.