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Reflections on the heart: medicine, emotion and history
  1. Fay Bound Alberti
  1. University of York, York, North Yorkshire, UK
  1. Correspondence to Fay Bound Alberti, History Department, University of York, York YO10 5DD, UK; fay.boundalberti{at}

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In Matters of the Heart: History, Medicine, Emotion (Bound Alberti, 2010), I posited that the heart of culture and the heart of science became disconnected in the nineteenth century; that the heart which had for centuries been the centre of life, emotions and personhood lost out to the brain as the organ par excellence of selfhood. This process was not clear-cut or definitive. There had been interest in craniocentric versions of the self in the ancient world, and there is continued emphasis in the emotional heart in the present day, as Josh Hordern’s article explores through such examples as the organ scandal at Alder Hey Children’s Hospital in Liverpool. So, what is it about the heart, that peculiar, emotive and sensorially charged organ, that continues to be associated with some essence of the self? After all, in medical terms, it is a mere pump.

Except that the heart-as-pump is beginning to lose favour. Not in teaching or mainstream popular dialogue, where the pump metaphor has become ubiquitous, to explain the movement of the heart, and as a way of connecting to the ‘spare parts’ model of the body. Viewing the body as a series of spare parts is critical to the principles and practice of organ donation. That is not to say that the process must be an unemotional one; organ donation rests principally on the idea of the ‘gift’, of an altruistic exchange from one person to another. It also raises questions about bodily ownership, however, especially given the development of presumed consent via the ‘opt-out’ system of transplantation in the UK as in many other countries.

It is difficult to align popular perceptions about the heart as a site …

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  • Presented at This article is part of 'The Heart in Medicine, History and Culture'.

  • Funding The authors have not declared a specific grant for this research from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Patient consent for publication Not required.

  • Provenance and peer review Commissioned; internally peer reviewed.