I was asked by Matches in a comment a few weeks ago to post on this topic. So I have been thinking about it. Wondering from where the curiosity comes. Wondering why this topic. Wondering why this title because this was the specific wording which was requested. It is very curious. He asked for both my professional and personal opinions, and I will oblige.
The human heart is very complex as we are all aware. But under normal circumstances it continues to beat for a rather simple reason. Our brains tell it to do so. God’s amazing process of evolution included progressive stages of brain development from very primitive reptilian type brains, to the more complex mammalian brain, to the rather highly complex human brain. As more complexity in the brain is gained, the more primitive parts are still retained. So what we have in the mammalian brain is complexity that is built on the reptilian brain with the primitive parts retained, and what we have in the human brain is complexity built onto both the mammalian and reptilian brains with the primitive parts also retained. So why is this important to why our hearts beat.
Reptilian brains are built to regulate necessary bodily functions. Heartbeat, breathing, food finding, water finding, fight or flight responses, temperature regulating behavior. There is not much else to reptiles. No one has ever had an interactive meaningful relationship with a reptile. Reptiles are very serious. They just exist. This corresponds to the brainstem of mammalian and human brains. Reptiles are just a brainstem.
Mammalian brains though are a step up. Mammals can actually interact in a more meaningful way with what surrounds them. They play with each other. They at live in and for the here and now. Sure there is some instinctual stuff that they do which appears to be planning ahead, but they do not know why they do it. And people and mammals establish all sorts of relationships. They still have a brainstem regulating all that serious stuff, but they also have a cortex which makes them seem more human-like.
The human brain goes one step further with not only a cortex but a large frontal area of neo cortex. Humans can not only interact with their present environments. They can plan into the future. We still retain our serious brainstems and our more interactive cortices, but we add that very human front part.
So the reason why our hearts continue to beat is because our brainstems have an area that sends a signal to our hearts to keep beating (There is a whole bunch of cellular level physiology of sodium and potassium and calcium and ATP and ion channels which actually leads to the nerve impulse and the timing of the impulse, but I don’t think anyone including myself is interested in that here.). When that area of our brain is damaged due to a stroke or infection or some sort of trauma, our hearts stop beating.
But it is a little more complex than that because our hearts have an intrinsic ability to beat on their own. If the nerve signal is lost and the heart muscle itself is healthy, it will beat on its own without the nerve signal. This is because the heart muscle is of a type that can generate its own electrical potential and initiate its own beating. It is sort of a built in redundancy. But it won’t keep you alive indefinitely. You still need your brain.
So with the easy part out of the way we can proceed to the more curious part of the question, that being my personal opinion which implies to me that Matches is after a spiritual or psychological response or possibly both or maybe I am way over reading it. So I will begin here.
It certainly is true that after one spouse dies the second spouse can literally lose the desire to live and find themselves dead rather quickly. This is very interesting and would seem to indicate that the reptilian part of our brain can be essentially dominated and shut down by the human part (although it is impossible for your children to seriously injure themselves by holding their breath as kids throwing a little fit are often fond of doing in an attempt to generate leverage). But I think this may give a clue to what Matches is after.
The question, “Why do our hearts continue to beat?,” (I have no idea if that combination of punctuation I just laid down there is proper, but it seems to work for me at this juncture, and I am a firm believer that I ought to be able to throw around commas and other forms of punctuation where I see fit rather than following all those proper rules and such.) seems to come from the beginning that our hearts should probably not continue to beat. That it may be surprising that our hearts actually do continue to beat. We already know what will cease the beating from an anatomical or physiological position. That is being cut off the signal to beat. But what if considered from the spiritual or psychological side. What would cease the beating there?
The answer is pain. Emotional, spiritual, psychological pain. If intense enough, it can cease the beating. It has been known to occur as we have already established. And it occurs, however rare it may be, when that emotional, spiritual, psychological pain is derived from a relationship source. In our example someone we love has been taken from us. I do not know of any instances where someone inflicting emotional harm or pain to another has resulted in death, but that doesn’t mean that it hasn’t or doesn’t occur. Maybe it does. And maybe it does a lot. Maybe it is fair to say that this type of pain leads to anxiety and depression which leads to increased all cause mortality and even to specific causes of mortality such as suicide.
So why does all emotional, spiritual, or psychological pain not kill us. Why do our hearts continue to beat? I think it is because we long for relationship. God made us for relationship. Relationship with him and with each other. It is a continual drive that we are not easily willing to give up. We continue to seek it when we lose it. We try to fill up the empty spots with other stuff. We don’t let God fill the places he is supposed to fill, and we look for it everywhere else. But the point is that we are always looking to fill that drive for relationship somehow. It is one of the drives coming from very human part of our brain, and our hearts don’t stop beating until we have totally utterly given up on finding it.
I hope this sufficiently gets at what Matches was looking for. Thanks for reading.