For hundreds of years, humans have linked one of our most vital organs to feelings of love and romance.

Have you ever tried to find a love song that doesn’t mention the heart? From My Heart Will Go On and Don’t Break My Heart, to Hungry Heart and Heart’s a Mess, we express our romantic emotions —our desire, satisfaction, falling in and out of love, heartbreak, betrayal and disappointment — through images of the heart.

But how exactly did that beating organ in your chest become linked to feelings about romantic partners? So integrated is the link between love and the heart that we might not stop to think about why this particular part of our body is so important to our romantic emotions.

The heart has taken on diverse meanings across different cultures. In western history, the relationship between the heart and romantic love is centuries old. In fact, the heart was once considered the seat of the ‘passions’ (somewhat aligned to what we understand as modern-day emotions). In the seventeenth century treatise The Passions of the Mind in General, Thomas Wright asks: ‘who loveth extremely and feeleth not that passion to dissolve his heart?’

Blame it on the Bard

William Shakespeare should also take his share of the blame —his plays and poetry make extensive use of the heart. King Lear asks: ‘Wilt break my heart?’. Hamlet’s uncle and new stepfather Claudius agrees to see Hamlet’s play ‘with all my heart’. Iago, the villain in Othello, scornfully refuses to ‘wear my heart upon my sleeve / For daws to peck at’, preferring dangerous duplicity instead. The heart is also a source of romantic love. When Romeo sees Juliet, he asks: ‘Did my heart love til now?’

Today we have ended up with what writer and historian Fay Bound Alberti has called two hearts: science’s ‘the heart-as-pump’ and popular culture’s ‘the heart-as-emotion’.

Understanding this complexity could change the way we think about heart health and wellbeing. There are facets of the ‘heart-as-pump’ idea that carry across into our more romantic notions of the heart (and vice versa): most notably, our heartbeat and the concept of heartbreak.

Think about your pulse. It might race with excitement, pound with fear, or flutter around your romantic interest. It is an audible, felt indicator of not only your cardiac health but your emotional state, and an indicator of life, feeling, passion and health. But what would happen if you couldn’t feel it? Such is the experience of patients implanted with artificial hearts while they await heart transplants. These patients have to come to terms with the loss of a function that carries significant weight in terms of both medical and cultural meaning. And literature can help us to better understand this.

In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Juliet drinks a potion to stop her own pulse as part of a convoluted plan to unite with her new husband, Romeo. While this plan doesn’t work out particularly well for them, it tells us something about love, the heart and the self that Juliet risks temporarily stopping her own heartbeat in the pursuit of love.

Heartbreak is physical too

Just as the pulse is not only physiological but emotional, so the physical heart can also be impacted by extreme emotional events. If you go through a breakup (hopefully not on Valentine’s Day!), you might feel ‘heartbroken’. While we might not use this term to refer to the actual heart beating inside you, heartbreak was formally recognised in the 1990s as an acute cardiac syndrome called ‘Takotsubo Syndrome’. Informally known as ‘Heartbreak Syndrome’, it is often triggered by intense emotional trauma, such as the loss of a loved one.

This is something we can track across Shakespeare’s works and many others from that era. In Macbeth, upon losing his wife and children, Macduff is advised to ‘Give sorrow words. The grief that does not speak / Whispers the o’erfraught heart and bids it break’.

When she mistakenly believes Romeo is dead, Juliet cries, ‘O break, my heart’! Shakespeare gives voice to an idea in early modern English culture that withholding or repressing intense emotion can literally overcharge and ‘break’ the heart. This means that heartbreak is both metaphorical and physical, and literary works like Shakespeare can help us to explore these complex connections between our bodies and emotions.

Teresa Palmer and Nicholas Hoult in a scene from Warm Bodies. Photo: Album/Alamy Stock Photo

Shakespeare’s plays continue to be used and adapted to explore precisely these topics. In Warm Bodies, a zombified adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, a (literally) heartless zombie called ‘R’ is distracted from brain-eating by his developing feelings for ‘Julie’. The film explores the interconnection between love, emotion and the physical heart as it tracks the story of Juliet and her Romeo. The film adopts the symbol of the heart, combining both its physiological and emotional meanings as R’s zombie heart begins to beat again as his love for Julie grows. The pulse becomes a sign of life and a sign of humanity.  

This Valentine’s Day, whether you are listening to love songs, avoiding all things heart-themed or somewhere in between, you’ll inevitably come across that persistent symbol of the heart —the beating centre of how we think about (and feel) love.

This article was co-authored by Dr Brid Phillips from the University of Western Australia and Dr Michael Stevens from the University of New South Wales.

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