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The Heart And Mental Influence

The heart is an organ so vitally important that we might expect it to
be carefully protected by nature from any interference with its action
through mental influence, emotional conditions, or voluntary or
involuntary feelings. As a matter of fact, it is extremely susceptible
to mental influence, stimulant or depressive, and to emotions of all
kinds. Psychotherapy, that is, the removal of inhibiting influences
originating in the mind, and the suggestion of favorable mental
influences, is probably more important for the heart than for any
other organ in the body. The law of reserve energy has its most
noteworthy applications with regard to it. When we are apparently so
completely fatigued that we cannot do anything more, a purely mental
stimulus may so enliven the heart as to give the body a new supply of
strength and energy. A man wandering through a desert, or swimming for
his life at sea, may be so exhausted as to be quite ready to give up
entirely, and be brought to the conviction that he has absolutely no
strength left for further effort, when a flash in the distance, or a
sound that indicates that help is near, or some other mental
incitement, will give renewed energy. It is probably through the heart
that there comes to us most of our power to accomplish things when we
are already so tired as to seem exhausted. On the other hand, it is
the failure of circulation in muscles, because of a slacking heart,
that produces the sense of exhaustion. Muscular work is easy or even
pleasant when we are in good spirits, while, whenever exertion is
undertaken in the midst of discouragement, we cannot accomplish nearly
so much as when conditions are so framed as to give stimulus and

If a perfectly normal heart can be so affected by mental conditions
and emotions as to be seriously disturbed in its work on the one hand,
or greatly stimulated into new activity on the other, it is to be
expected that a heart affected by disease will be similarly affected
and probably even to a greater degree. It is clear, then, that our
cardiac patients have to be guarded against unfavorable mental
conditions, and have to have all their reserve energy called out for
them by encouragement and by the best possible prognosis for their
reflection. This is especially true as regards the removal of the many
unfavorable suggestions which, because of ignorance, have in the past
gathered round most forms of heart disease.

Emotion and the Heart.--The mental and emotional influence over the
heart's action was the truth that lay at the basis of the old fallacy
with regard to the physiology of the heart. The literature of all
countries testifies that the heart was long supposed to be the seat
and origin of the emotions. Every one has experienced how the heart
jumps when something unexpected happens. People have fainted from
excess of joy as well as of grief. The physical side of emotion is so
generally associated with some modification of the heart beat that it
is no wonder that emotions were directly connected with the organ.
When people are in depressed states the heart is apt to beat more
slowly than usual, while when in states of exhilaration, even those
dependent merely on mental factors, the pulse is more rapid.
Melancholic states have occasionally been attributed to the slowness
of the pulse, but the slow pulse seems to be a symptom connected with
the mental condition rather than a causative factor. In the maniacal
conditions, the rapidity of the pulse, which is sometimes quite
marked, must probably be explained in the same way, as due to the
mental excitement under which the patient is laboring.

The Heart and the Nervous System.--Prof. Von Leyden ten years ago
recalled attention to the fact that the heart is literally the primum
movens in man, and that before the central nervous system is laid
down, or there is any possible question of impulses flowing from
center to periphery, the heart, or at least its embryonic
representative, is beating as constantly, regularly, rhythmically, as
it is to do during all the subsequent life of the individual. Oliver
Wendell Holmes has expressed it poetically by stating that the angel
of life sets this heart pendulum going and only the angel of death can
break into the case and stop it.

Primitive Heart Action.--The original beating of the heart is
entirely automatic, and quite apart from any nervous initiative or
stimulus. The original bend in the primal blood vessel, which is to
represent the heart in the course of development, begins to pulsate
very early in the chick and evidently does the same thing in all other
living things. Notwithstanding this fact that the heart is thus easily
demonstrated to be the primum movens, the first exhibitor of
vitality, and might thus seem to be one of the organs or indeed the
one which should be safe from any nervous interference, later on
powerful connections with the nervous system are made, and heart
acceleration and inhibition become familiar phenomena. Every emotion,
as we have said, has its influence on the heart and even a certain
amount of voluntary control may be acquired. Indian fakirs are said to
be able to cause the heart to slow and almost to stop. The curious
phenomenon of suspended animation which they sometimes exhibit is said
to be due to this. Certain of the well-developed muscular subjects who
exhibit themselves at medical clinics are able to cause their hearts
to miss a beat, but this is said to be rather a result of will-power
over other muscles compressing the thorax, and interfering with the
heart, than direct influence upon the heart itself.

Mental Influence over Diseased Hearts.--Worry produces much more
serious symptoms in heart patients than in others. Anxiety about the
heart itself is often a source of serious detriment to a heart
patient. Most people have such a terror of having anything the matter
with their hearts that the haunting thought of such calamity is likely
to have a definite influence in preventing the development of such
compensation as will enable the heart to do its work to the best
advantage. It used to be the custom to refrain from telling patients
suffering from tuberculosis that they had the disease. On the other
hand, people with heart disease were usually informed of that fact.
The reason given for the latter course was that heart disease may in
many cases be the forerunner of sudden death, and the warning
knowledge was supposed to enable a man to get his affairs in order. No
worse policy for either disease could well have been imagined. The
pulmonary patient should be told at once, the heart patient should, as
far as possible, be saved the depressing knowledge of his condition.

Dr. MacKenzie, whose practically illuminating studies of heart disease
give him a right to express opinions with regard to it (and when those
opinions concern the influence of the mind they are doubly valuable
because of the absolute objectivity of his studies), has some rather
strong expressions with regard to the importance of modifying the
mental state in heart cases. He says:

The consciousness of heart trouble has often a depressing effect on
people, whether the trouble be slight or serious. When such people
become convinced that the trouble is curable or not serious, their
condition at once becomes greatly improved. Cures by faith, whether
in drugs, baths, elaborate methods or religion, act by playing upon
the mental condition. But our employment of this element in
treatment should not be the outcome of blind unreasoning faith in
some rite or ceremony, bath or drug, but in the intelligent
perception of the nature of the symptoms. The reassurance of the
patient of the harmless nature of the complaint goes a great way in
curing him. The reassurance that with reasonable care no danger need
be feared is extremely helpful. Even in serious cases when there is
reasonable hope of recovery or a certain degree of recovery, the
encouragement of the patient may and does help forward his

Heart Remedies and Suggestion.--Probably the best evidence we have for
the influence of the mind over the heart in diseased conditions, that
is, when there is definite organic change in the heart valves or
muscle, is to be found in the history of the many remedies that have
come and gone in heart therapeutics during the past generation.
Strophanthus, for instance, was very popular a quarter of a century
ago, and it seems as though in many cases it not only replaced, but
was more efficient than digitalis. How few there are who use it now
with confidence, and how general is the impression that it does not
affect the heart to any extent! The confidence with which the remedy
was given by the physician was conveyed to the patient and he "took
heart," as the expression is, and proceeded to get better. Even more
striking is the evidence afforded by other remedies. For a while it
seemed that cactus provided a heart stimulant and regulator of value.
Convalaria also gained a reputation as a heart remedy. Both are now
practically abandoned. Here, once more, the real remedy, when these
substances were employed, was, undoubtedly, the suggestion to the
patient in connection with the regulation of his habits of life, so
that his heart got a chance to catch up with its work. There are other
remedies with which we had similar experiences.

Even digitalis has had phases of confidence and distrust in it, that
are interesting to study in the light of what we now know with regard
to the influence of the psyche on the heart. One hears at medical
society meetings reports of the favorable action of digitalis within a
few hours of its administration. These are not examples of digitalis
action, but of mental influence. Any heart patient after the
first visit of a physician in whom he has confidence is sure to
brighten up at once, heart action is ever so much better and symptoms
of mental depression, and even of circulatory disturbance, disappear.
It is this that has made the study of even the efficiency of digitalis
so difficult. There were times when most physicians employed it in
rather large quantities for all forms of heart disease. In some heart
cases it is absolutely contra-indicated. Fortunately many of the
preparations of digitalis used in the past were quite inert, and so no
harm was done. The results obtained were psychotherapeutic.

Cardiac Inhibition.--The importance of the role of the nervous system
and of the mental influences which control it in all functions is well
illustrated by what we have learned during the last half century with
regard to inhibition in the animal organism. We used to think that
while the nervous system sent down positive impulses--that is, nervous
stimuli which brought about the accomplishment of certain
activities--it had nothing to do with the stoppage of those
activities. Such interference was supposed always to be due to
external influences of various kinds, potent for the time, in the
organism. We have learned, however, that inhibition is one of the
important functions of the nervous system. The idea has now become so
familiar that sometimes we are apt to forget how great is its
significance. Lauder Brunton, in his article on "Inhibition," set
forth its role as we have come to know it.

The recognition of the part inhibition plays in vital phenomena is
undoubtedly one of the most important discoveries which have been
made in physiology since Harvey discovered the circulation of the
blood. It throws light upon an immense number of phenomena
previously inexplicable and enables us to form theories of a
satisfactory nature about many vital problems. It offers an
explanation of the nature of hypnotic states, which is at least as
satisfactory as that we have of the action of many drugs.

The nervous mechanism of the heart affords the best and most
commonly cited example of inhibitory action, and here it was first
studied by Weber and Claude Bernard in 1848. The cardiac ganglia
derived from the sympathetic preside over the movements of the
organ, and in response to the stimulus of the intra-ventricular
blood-pressure cause rhythmical contraction of the cavities. Their
action is, however, controlled by the pneumogastric nerve, through
which impulses of an inhibitory nature are constantly traveling and
acting as a restraining force.

As noted by Lauder Brunton, the late Professor Czermak had a small
glandular tumor in close contact with the right pneumogastric nerve
and he was able by pressure on this to compress the nerve to any
extent he wished, and either "to completely stop the heart or simply
retard it." He often performed this experiment so that it is not
nearly so dangerous as might be thought. We have some instances,
apparently too well authenticated to be doubted, in which the power of
the human will to inhibit heart action has been as strikingly
manifested as this mechanical disturbance of Professor Czermak.
Sometimes these stories of cardiac inhibition through the will are
dismissed as unworthy of credence, and doubtless many of them are mere
fiction, or have been exaggerated for sensational purposes, but some
of them are very suggestive examples of the power of the will over the
heart. If only a modicum of such power were to be employed, it would
seriously hamper heart action, and it must be the aim of psychotherapy
to prevent such inhibition.

At least one instance of voluntary heart inhibition was observed by
thoroughly trained and properly accredited scientists. A report of it
has been published. As a bit of documentary evidence, on a subject
that is usually considered so vague as to be scarcely worth
considering, Dr. Cheyne's description of the remarkable power of
Colonel Tonshend over his heart should be in the hands of those who
wish to influence hearts through minds and wills.

He could die or expire when he pleased, and yet by an effort, or
somehow, he could come to life again. . . . We all three felt his
pulse first: it was distinct, though small and thready, and his
heart had its usual beating. He composed himself upon his back and
lay in a still posture for some time. While I held his right hand.
Dr. Baynard laid his hand upon his heart, and Mr. Skrine held a
clean looking-glass to his mouth. I found his pulse sink gradually
till at last I could not feel any, by the most exact and nice touch;
Dr. Baynard could not feel the least motion in the heart, nor Mr.
Skrine discern the least soil of breath on the bright mirror. Then
each of us by turns examined his arm, heart and breath, but could
not by the nicest scrutiny, discover the least symptom of life in
him. We reasoned a long time about this odd appearance, and finding
he still continued in that position, we began to conclude that he
had indeed carried the experiment too far; and at last we were
satisfied that he was already dead, and were just ready to leave
him. This continued about half an hour. . . . As we were going away
we perceived some motion about the body, and, upon examination,
found his pulse and the motion of his heart gradually returning; he
began to breathe heavily and speak softly.

Nor must it be thought that the inhibitory faculty can act only in
slowing the heart. Normally a certain amount of inhibition is
exercised over the heart's action. If by any chance this should be
decreased then acceleration of cardiac activity may take place. Lauder
Brunton called attention to that in discussing another phase of
pneumogastric function. He said:

Paralysis of the pneumogastric, of course, does away with its
action. And hence we have among other symptoms of this condition
increased rapidity of the contractions of the heart from withdrawal
of the inhibitory influence.

If slowing of the heart action can be produced through the mind by
this mechanism of inhibition, so also under other circumstances may
acceleration occur.

Shock and the Heart--How large a role emotion plays in disturbing the
action of a heart that is already diseased, is illustrated by the
story told in serious histories, on what seems good authority, of the
dwarf of the French king, who was frightened to death by what he
thought were the arrangements for his execution. While we take great
pains as a rule to impress upon sufferers from organic heart disease
the necessity for their avoiding every kind of over-exertion, or
sudden movement of any kind, we do not always impress upon them the
even greater necessity for the avoidance of shock and fright, and
profound emotions. It must not be thought that emotional shocks have a
deleterious effect only in advanced cases of heart trouble. Almost any
physician will readily recall examples where emotion had much to do
with the break in compensation which indicates that the heart has for
a time been overworked.

A case in my own experience illustrates this: The patient, a student,
had suffered from severe so-called growing pains, undoubtedly
rheumatic, when he was about fourteen, and probably had acquired a
heart lesion at that time. It did not, however, disturb him in
the slightest degree. The patient had never noticed any fatigue on
running up stairs; he had no shortness of breath; there were no
symptoms pointing to his heart. One summer while his family were in
the country he came into town for the day, and missing the last train
out, he went to the family home to sleep, though it had been closed up
for the summer. He let himself in without difficulty and was preparing
to go to bed when he resolved to get a glass of water. There being no
tumbler nearer than the dining-room, he went there. As he entered the
dining-room he struck a match. With the flash of the light he found
himself looking into the barrel of a revolver and a hoarse voice said,
"Hands up!" His hands went up. The next minute he was in the hands of
two "plain clothes" policemen who had been watching the neighborhood
because of recent burglaries. Noticing the light upstairs, they had
made their way in for the purpose of catching what they thought a
burglar at work.

The young fellow, who had never before fainted, collapsed almost at
once, and was unconscious for some minutes. The next day he was rather
prostrated and tired on movement. By resting a good deal for the next
week this passed off to a considerable degree, but then his physician
found that he was suffering from a serious heart lesion, with a
decided break in compensation. I saw him several months later. His
heart had never regained its old power, and his mitral valve was quite
unable to fulfill its function. Just what the mechanism of the almost
sudden break in compensation was after he had been for so long quite
immune from any effects of the rheumatism, is hard to say, but the
lesson of the case is easy to understand.

Place of Psychotherapy in Treatment.--The role of psychotherapy, then,
in heart cases consists in the recognition of the part that the mind,
the will and the emotions play in their influence over this important
organ. These psychic factors may produce disturbed conditions of
various kinds. The more experience the physician has with cardiac
cases of all kinds, organic as well as functional, the more powerful
does he recognize the influence of the mind over the heart to be. The
expression that a man is living on his will is no mere figure of
speech. Some cases we have cited seem to show that a favorable
attitude of mind keeps up heart action, where an unfavorable attitude
would almost surely allow the heart to fail. It is this very potent
influence then that must be used to as great advantage as possible in
the psychotherapy of cardiac patients.

Undoubtedly the most important phase of it is in prophylaxis. As far
as possible we must save our heart patients from emotions. The effect
of emotion on the heart is known. When that organ is already crippled,
emotion may produce a serious strain on it. It is as important to save
heart patients from joyful emotions as from those of contrary nature.
Many a son who, after years of absence, thought to surprise a dear old
mother by suddenly presenting himself to her, has learned to his cost
that an old heart may break from joy, almost as easily as from sorrow,
and may be as unfavorably affected by the glad emotions as by terror
or fright. We must also save heart patients from the unfavorable
influence of a bad prognosis, and of too serious a diagnosis, both of
which may be quite unjustified, for the rule is that the longer a man
has been studying the heart, the less likely is he to be confident in
his diagnosis, or unfavorable in his prognosis.

The curative place of psychotherapy is in the obtaining, as far as
possible, of placid easy lives for these patients. This does not mean
that they are to give up their occupations, for very often the
internal emotional life, which develops when they have nothing to do
but think about themselves, will be more serious in its effect upon
the heart than the ordinary vocation. Exciting incidents in life work
must, however, be avoided. If men are in occupations that require
exposure to excitement, then it may be advisable to change their
occupations. Brokers, speculators, actors, sometimes public speakers,
on whom appearances in public in spite of apparent placidity are often
a severe strain, may have to be guided into quieter paths of life. In
general, in every attempt to treat heart disease, and the neurotic
symptoms which develop in connection with it, the patient's mind must
be considered as one of the most important therapeutic factors.

Next: Diagnosis And Prognosis In Heart Disease

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