Follow your hearts (both of them)

December 28, 2014 by Martha’s Dad

ood-2003979Most people who know me are aware that I’m something of a fan of the BBC’s sci-fi series Doctor Who (as witnessed in the TARDIS mug, sonic screwdriver and vortex manipulator I found under the Christmas tree this year!).  It’s a brilliantly-written series, has been since 1963, and the character of the Doctor (“splendid chap, all of them”) is a masterful creation.

He can change his appearance to become young (or old) again, and his physiology is distinctive in that he has two hearts… but maybe that’s not as distinctive a feature as we assume!  As a “Whovian”, I was quite naturally drawn to a factual story on the BBC Future site recently.  It concerns the story of a (sadly now deceased) cardiac patient known as Carlos who briefly shared the Doctor’s physiological trait of a second heart.  In the case of Carlos, this addition to his cario-vascular system was mechanical, rather than organic, but it served a vital purpose in keeping the patient alive.  The intriguing thing about this story, however, was the effect the extra heart had on Carlos psychologically.

The piece on the BBC site has a really good summary of the role the heart plays in our psychological lives, with some interesting research cited.  For instance, the very act of being aware on the beating of our own heart (e.g. by feeling our pulse) tends to make us both more emotional ourselves and better able to read the facial expressions of others.  More intriguingly, perhaps, those with greater awareness of their own bodily sensations appear to have superior intuition, better able to identify and predict patterns in, say, playing cards drawn from a deck.  Under certain circumstances, then, the old adage “follow your heart” isn’t a bad strategy to follow at all.  But, would this give Time Lords such as the Doctor a long-term cognitive and emotional advantage?

The case of Carlos seems to suggest otherwise.  He was quite prone to depression following the implant and often attributed this to the fact that the sensation of the beating heart was coming from “the wrong place”.  The surgeons had fitted the pump roughly just above the abdomen, so the only cardiac sensation Carlos was really aware of was emanating from there.  This had a profound effect on him psychologically, alas.  He gradually became less emotional himself, for instance, and he was increasingly less empathetic toward others.  Crucially, Carlos also displayed signs of impaired decision-making skills and a steady decline emotional cognition.

So, following your heart is all very well…provided it is in the right place!