We are about to finish Soul Made Flesh by Carl Zimmer in class this week and I’ve been reflecting on how, despite science’s deep impact on how we think and act, we still have subconscious belief in superficial myths that slip out despite our common knowledge of biology and the world around us. For instance, Zimmer illustrates the battle that people like Thomas Willis went through in trying to draw attention to the superiority of the brain over the heart in its control over all our emotional and reasoning faculties. After dissecting thousands of brains, comparing and contrasting the anatomies of animals and humans, anatomies of past (Galen) and Willis’s present (Harvey), and pushing these ideas at just the right time over two decades and through two revolutions, Willis was finally able to solidify the brains mastery over the human body and personality rather than the heart.
Yet despite this great fight to make the brain’s superiority over the other organs common knowledge, we throw it all to the wind with sayings like “she broke my heart,” or, “he has a wicked heart.” Why have these sayings survived, and why do we still feel that emotions and our persons are derived from the heart? Can I say something like, “when she left it was like getting shot through the amagdyla,” or, “I’m so excited dopamine might spill out of my ears,” and not sound completely awkward?
Despite common knowledge about such happenings in the brain, we still communicate better with the myths of the past, such as the belief that the heart is the center for production of emotion and regulation of our actions and thoughts. I guess it really depends on how much we cling to these myths, and how far these myths go in messing true science. Most people know that emotional processes and personality are regulated by the brain, however, it is still easier to communicate our feelings and thoughts (which is essential to any culture) through common myths. Perhaps we’ll all use “scientifically correct” phrasing someday, but what has to happen to completely turn a culture to the truth?