A Billion Heartbeats

By Joe Romano, Marketing Manager

The workings of the human heart are the profoundest mystery of the universe. One moment they make us despair of our kind, and the next we see in them the reflection of the divine image.

--Charles W. Chestnut

A billion heartbeats. As measured in heartbeats, it seems that every animal on the planet lives roughly the same lifespan, about a billion heartbeats. Usually, the smaller animals, whose hearts beat faster, have shorter “real-time” lives. But measured in this Physiologic Time, basically using a heartbeat clock, all life spans are roughly the same. When we measure life in heartbeats or breaths it reveals how deeply subjective time is.

The average life-span of people living in the countries with the shortest life expectancy is roughly half that of those living in the countries with the longest. In industrialized nations, we reach one billion heart beats at about the age of thirty. The average Western life span is two and a half billion heartbeats, still in the same order of magnitude as the rest of the animals. That we live longer may be because of a myriad of factors, which may include everything from spirituality, nutrition, sanitation and technology.

So much of human existence seems to center on the affairs of the heart. In our hearts we hold our most sacred values of love, soulfulness, health, courage and truth. Each year at this time, we dutifully enact heart-centric celebrations ranging from Valentine’s Day to Heart Healthy Month. But why do we do so? Who was this St. Valentine? Where did the heart even come from? How could such a system have evolved? How can we know so little about the heart whose rhythm drives us through our lives? And why does the heart symbolize love?

Perhaps the oldest characterizations of the heart are those attributed to its chakra. The system of chakras has many models: the Hindu, the Tantric, the Himalayan and the Chinese. Each system basically depicts an energetic bridge from the heavens or the spiritual and divine to the earthly, the manifest and concrete. The chakras that make up this bridge represent parts of the human body and the energies that are said to center there. The heart chakra is the seat of love at the midpoint of the “bridge” and at the center of the two-way flow from the earthly to the divine and from the heavens to the earth. It is said that when this heart center is fully open it becomes the channel for Universal Love. Traditionally, the colors associated with this chakra include the red that we use to depict the heart today.

Nature does offer other reasons for red to be associated with the heart. More and more studies indicate that the red pigments found in many fruits and vegetables, like cherries, tomatoes, grapes, berries and even red wine contain powerful disease-fighting antioxidants that contribute to heart health and overall wellbeing.

Finding the origins of Valentine’s Day proves a bit more difficult. There were more than a few Valentines who were said to have been beheaded on the eve of the Roman festival of the Lupercalia, one supposedly for secretly marrying soldiers and their brides. Another is said to have cured the blind daughter of his jailer, and then passed her a love note reading, “With love, from your Valentine.” Other legends say the “notes” were left at the jail in support of Valentine. Whoever Valentine was and whatever he did, he and his love notes live on during St. Valentine’s Day, the Church’s replacement for the more carnal Roman Lupercalia rituals (notably all of the Valentines were beheaded as celebration of this holiday). Those Roman holidays included a ritual in which a young boy would choose the name of the girl who would be his lover for the remaining months of the year. The boy would wear the girl’s name, and so, his heart, “on his sleeve.”

Later, in colonial America, the practice of sending sweets to one’s betrothed was popular because of the extreme scarcity of sugar and gifts of this sort were greatly esteemed. This is the origin of the “conversation” hearts schoolchildren exchange today. American colonists made their own candy and then scratched love notes onto the surface. One imagines that in their original context phrases like “Be Mine” or “True Love” were not perceived as being so… saccharine. Ironically, sugar now makes up a significant portion of the American diet and greatly contributes to the number one cause of death in America, heart disease.

The physiology of the heart itself may provoke some of the most interesting and profound questions of all. Our human heart is made up of four chambers and four valves that keep the blood flowing in one direction. Each heart “beat” really consists of two quick contractions followed by a short rest. In each beat, the right side of the heart pumps oxygen-poor blood from the body and passes it through the lungs where it is oxygenated and releases carbon dioxide. The left side of the heart pumps the oxygen-rich blood from the lungs to the body, providing needed oxygen to cells and organs. The blood is delivered though an extraordinarily elaborate system of veins and capillaries throughout the body. Different and precise blood pressures have to be maintained in the lungs and in the veins. Pressures must be strong enough to deliver blood to a body that is in constant motion relative to gravity. They cannot be so strong or inconstant that they burst or collapse veins.

Now here is the weird part. Science accepts that we evolved from unicellular organisms to larger, more differentiated creatures like worms, then fish, then reptiles and mammals. Single or multi-cellular organisms can pass nutrients across their membranes, a very slow process that only works for the tiniest of life forms. Bigger and more evolved creatures need more elaborate systems. Worms begin with a heart that is basically a closed tube. Fish have a very simple two-valve heart that barely meets their needs; by the time blood travels the one-way trip from the gills to the heart, it is just about out of oxygen.

In the case of the reptile and mammal hearts we make an evolutionary leap from single circulation to double circulation, requiring three chambers for reptiles and four chambers for us mammals. This requires a complete and elaborate replumbing, remodeling and rewiring that employs at least four complex new systems; each would have had to come into being all at once. Darwin’s own standard was this: “If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed, which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down.”

 So then the question remains: how could our mammal heart have evolved from a simple model to a complex one fast enough? How could the organisms live between versions? Scientists don’t know. Recent theories suggest something like gene-controlled module building, in which a whole new “section” or “loop” is built over time and then one day a genetic switch is thrown and the species switches over to the new “route” allowing the old routes to fall into disuse and eventually die away. But these are just hypotheses, we don’t really know.

We know that our hearts propel us though life and indeed through time itself. We recognize that our hearts hold an energy to which we attribute some of our most human qualities. And measured in heartbeats, we seem to share a very similar life experience with all creatures.

It is a law of physics that we experience time as moving only one direction: from past to future. That’s because the world we perceive is irreversible, just like the flow of blood though our hearts. Ultimately, it is the pace and cadence of the heartbeat and of breath that moves all creatures though the dimension of time and the experience of life.


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