I Heart . . . Symbolism

Why does the heart shape look absolutely nothing like a human heart? And on a related note, why is the heart, anatomically correct or otherwise, associated with love? The answer involves herbal contraceptives, pinecones, and Aristotle’s faulty understanding of human anatomy.

If you had to pick one symbol to represent love, what would it be? It would probably look like this:

Red heart shape

And you would probably say that it’s a heart. But the human heart looks like this:

Image by Stenemo, November 7, 2017, CC BY-SA 4.0 from Wikimedia Commons.

And you would say that this giant muscle—which beats an average of 100,000 times per day and pumps about 70 gallons of blood through your body each hour, generating enough pressure during a contraction to squirt blood 10 feet if the aorta were cut open—represents . . . love.

The heart is a fairly single-minded muscle. Its main job is to pump blood throughout your body, and the organ itself isn’t necessarily the origin of love in the body.

In the words of Bill Bryson,

It has been calculated (and goodness knows how, it must be said) that during the course of a lifetime the heart does an amount of work sufficient to lift a one-ton object 150 miles into the air. It is a truly remarkable implement. It just doesn’t care about your love life.

(Bryson, The Body: A Guide for Occupants, 112.)

Let’s take a closer look.

The Heart of Love

Throughout many different cultures and religions, spanning thousands of years of human history, the heart has been regarded as the seat of human emotion, life, and will. In the ancient Near East, the heart was both the seat of emotion and the location of the mind, functions that were also associated with the bowels. The Aztecs extracted the hearts of human sacrifices to offer to the gods and regarded them as the seat of the individual, the sun being a great heart-soul. In Hinduism, the heart represents the atman, the divine center or true soul of a person. Classical philosophers in the tradition of Aristotle also believed thought and reason occurred in the heart rather than the brain, which we now know is not the case. Really, emotion is created in the brain, too, and experienced thorough physiological reactions, which might involve changes in blood flow, heart rate, and hormone secretion.

The ancient Greeks and Romans linked the heart to strong emotions, and Greek poetry connected the passions of love with the heart. Venus, the goddess of love, directed Cupid to set human hearts on fire with love, as the Greeks believed.

In Medieval Europe, the idea of wholehearted, devoted, romantic love became idealized in the feudal courts of France. A young man would play instruments and sing to a lady he hoped to woo, pledging his whole heart to her forever. The yearning, romantic sentiments found in courtly love spread to Spain, Italy, Portugal, and all over Europe, and “love staked out its place not only as a literary concept but also as an important social value and an intrinsic part of being human” (Yalom, 2019).

How Do We “Feel” Love?

From a scientific standpoint, the heart and the blood it pumps both play a role in our experience of emotions, including love. When we blush with embarrassment or redden with anger, it’s because our blood pressure increases as a reaction to our thoughts about a humiliating or enraging situation. The many blood vessels in the face show these variations in blood flow (Martinez, 2018). And when you feel nervous around someone of the opposite sex and experience the fight-or-flight response, more blood is directed to the arms and legs, preparing the body for action. This can be a bit annoying when the only action you’re looking for is asking someone out on a date. These bodily responses to emotion, however, are not necessarily universal—physiological responses to and drivers of emotion depend largely on cultural context (Butler, Lee, and Gross, 2018).

Linda Feldman Barrett has described the brain’s process of creating emotion as different brain regions spontaneously acting together to produce a feeling based on various inputs. The feeling is shaped by a person’s previous experiences and cultural understandings of emotion concepts (Bryce 2017).

Though the physiological responses and outward manifestation of emotions may be culturally distinct, cultural universals may be found in the area of the body where certain emotions are felt. In a study of both West European and East Asian subjects, love was described as a warm feeling in the upper and middle regions of the body, seemingly radiating out of the center of the chest. The researchers concluded that the somatosensory experience of different emotions, including love, can be mapped to certain areas of the body. (Nummenmaa, Glerean, Hari, and Hietanan, 2014).

It makes sense, then, to use the heart as a metaphor for love—we embody the emotions we feel in a very real, physiological way. We feel emotions because our physiological response creates those feelings. We can feel love in our heart—that warm, sometimes fluttery feeling in our chest that radiates outward–as an embodied experience of affection for another person.

The Heart Shape

Silphium depicted on a coin from sixth-century Cyrene.
T. V. Buttrey, Expedition magazine, vol. 34, Nos. 1–2, 1992, p. 62; Via K. Baty, from Wikipedia.

The heart shape as we know it was first used to depict plants rather than human organs. Until the late Middle Ages, the heart shape commonly represented peepal leaves in the Indus River Valley; silphium in ancient Greece, Rome, and Northern Africa; and water lilies, fig leaves, and ivy in Europe. Silphium in particular was linked to love and sexuality due to its use as a contraceptive, and its heart-shaped fruit was featured on coins in Cyrene as early as the sixth century BCE. Additionally, ivy was noted for its longevity and was seen as an emblem of eternal love.

The first known—although contested—depiction of a heart shape as a representation of love was in an illustration found in the French text Roman de la poire, [AS3] dating to the 1250s. A capital S is decorated with a lover offering his heart to his mistress. It looks like an upside-down pinecone, or perhaps a pear, with the narrow end facing upward. This is consistent with descriptions of the heart in anatomical literature of the time (Aristotle also mistakenly taught that the heart had three chambers instead of four, leading to incorrect anatomical descriptions that were not corrected until the sixteenth century). In the scene in the manuscript that this illustration accompanies, a lady gives a pear to her lover, which is an allusion to Eve offering a piece of fruit (believed by many at this time to be an apple) to Adam in the Garden of Eden.

A man offering a woman a pinecone-shaped heart, a scene from Roman de la poire.
Miniature (capital S) from a manuscript of the Roman de la poire.
Atelier du Maître de Bari, c. 1250, public domain, from Wikimedia Commons

A similar scene is illustrated in The Romance of Alexander, a 1344 French manuscript by Lambert le Tor. The lady lifts a heart-shaped heart that her beau has given her as he touches his chest, from whence the heart came. This manuscript led to “an explosion of heart imagery,” especially in France.

A woman offering a man a heart, a scene from The Romance of Alexander.
Illustration from The Romance of Alexander, Bodleian Library, Oxford, England.
Jehan de Grise and his workshop, “The Heart Offering,” 1338–1344.

An early depiction in Italy was Giotto’s 1305 painting of Charity, one of the seven virtues personified in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua. Charity hands to Jesus a pinecone-shaped heart with the tip facing upwards—symbolically offering her love. This theme was reflected in several other works of art in Northern Italy in the fourteenth century.

Charity offers her heart to Jesus.
Giotto di Bondone, No. 45 The Seven Virtues: Charity, 1306, Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, Italy. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

By the mid-fourteenth century, the heart or pinecone shape had been turned upside down with the point facing the bottom, and around the same time, the wide part of the symbol took on a more scalloped look. Thus, the modern heart shape was born. It became popular in Europe around the sixteenth century and was used in religious imagery, such as the Luther Rose and the Sacred Heart, inspiring fervent devotion to Jesus and a sign of monastic love.

As we can see, the heart wasn’t limited to romantic love. As the seat of all emotion, the heart particularly represented faithfulness and bravery. A heart on a coat of arms was a symbol of courage—the very word itself is derived from cor, meaning “heart” in Latin (Jauhar, 2018, p. 20). Metaphors in many different languages attest to the different strong emotions attributed to the heart—to “speak from the heart” is to be sincere, to “take heart” is to be brave, repentance and reconciliation require a “change of heart,” and the Grinch’s heart was lacking in compassion, for it was “two sizes too small.”

The famous I Heart New York Logo by Milton Glaser, 1977.

Another drastic change in the use of the heart icon, also known as the cardioid, was in 1977, when the “I ❤ NY” logo was created to attract tourists to a struggling New York City. The heart was not seen only as a symbol of romantic love—it encapsulated a fondness for an iconic American city, spurring spin-offs and cliched T-shirts for everything imaginable in addition to positively changing the perception of New York. Heart was now a verb synonymous with love, depending on how you read the ❤ symbol out loud.

In 1999, when the first emoticons for mobile communication were released, the heart symbol visually communicated love in a quick and simple way. Chat rooms, text messages, and social media reactions over the next two decades until the present have only increased the use and visibility of the heart emoji. On the latest iPhone, there are 24 unique heart emojis, plus more that include hearts as part of a larger image—and there’s even an anatomically correct one! (Click here for an n-gram analysis showing how different heart emojis are used, if you’re into that kind of thing.)

The heart shape is now an undying symbol of love, whether that love is undying or not. And whether or not the heart itself creates emotion, it is an important part of the way we feel emotion. What does love feel like to you?

Sources

Butler, Emily A., Tiane L. Lee, and James L. Gross. “Does Expressing Your Emotions Raise or Lower Your Blood Pressure? The Answer Depends on Cultural Context.” Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, vol.40, no. 3 (2009), 510–517. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4260334/.

Bryce, Emma.  How Emotions Are ‘Made’: Why Your Definition of Sadness is Unlike Anyone Else’s. March 23, 2017. Wired. https://www.wired.co.uk/article/lisa-feldman-barrett-emotions.

Bryson, Bill. The Body: A Guide for Occupants. (Doubleday: New York City, 2019).

Jauhar, Sandeep. Heart: A History. (New York City: Farrar, Strass & Giroux, 2018).

Lewis, Tanya. “Human Heart: Anatomy, Function & Facts. March 22, 2016. Livescience. https://www.livescience.com/34655-human-heart.html.

Martinez, Aleix M. “The Hidden Emotions within Our Blood Flow.” October 17, 2018. Science Breaker. https://thesciencebreaker.org/storage/breaks/the-hidden-emotions-within-our-blood-flow.pdf.

Nummenmaa, Lauri, Enrico Glerean, Riitta Hari, and Jari K. Hietanen. “Bodily Maps of Emotions.” PNAS, vol. 11, no. 2 (2014), 646–651. https://www.pnas.org/content/111/2/646.

Price, Lilly. The Heart Icon Looks Nothing Like a Human Heart. Here’s Why. February 13, 2019. USA Today. https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2019/02/13/valentines-day-why-heart-icon-looks-nothing-like-human-organ/2811839002/

Wikipedia. “Heart.” Accessed February 25, 2021. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heart.

Wikipedia. “Heart Symbol.” Accessed February 25, 2021. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heart_symbol.

Yalom, Marion. “How Did the Human Heart Become Associated with Love? And How Did It Turn into the Shape We Know Today?” February 12, 2019. TED. https://ideas.ted.com/how-did-the-human-heart-become-associated-with-love-and-how-did-it-turn-into-the-shape-we-know-today/.

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