Getting to the Heart of the Grey Matter
Charles F. Levinthal
(Talk on the occasion of the Phi Beta Kappa induction ceremony, April 30, 2014)
First and foremost, I want to congratulate all the current initiates to Phi Beta Kappa. It is a great honor for all of you to be accepted and inducted into a society that is 237 years old. Your families should be heartily congratulated as well!
To the officers of the chapter, they have my heartfelt thanks for inviting me to speak to you. You will see in a moment why I have phrased my appreciation in that specific way.
Let me begin by telling you a bit about my professional background. It has been my personal pleasure to be a member of the Hofstra University faculty for over forty years, and it has been equally my pleasure to teach courses in a field called cognitive neuropsychology. As you know, my principal concern in the textbooks I have written over the years revolve around the issues of drug use and abuse in America today, but more broadly I consider myself a cognitive neuropsychologist.
For those who might not be familiar with this field, let me explain what cognitive neuropsychology is. Cognitive neuropsychology is a branch of science that focuses on two areas of inquiry:
First, it focuses on the way we think about things, process information, come up with new concepts, new solutions to problems, and in general navigate successfully through this complex world of ours. That is the cognitive part.
Second, it focuses on the functions of the human brain (that is the neuropsychology part). Teaching and conducting research that is devoted to gaining a greater understanding of the brain and how it accomplishes all of our cognitive and emotional experiences (the good ones and the bad ones) has been a passion of mine. And I have been told that this passion has been communicated in the courses I teach.
In a real sense, this occasion is a celebration of the human brain, even though, physically speaking, the brain has little to impress you with. It weighs only a little more than three pounds. It looks like a wrinkled blob that isn’t doing much. Yet here in the brain is everything we are – all our memories, our dreams and aspirations, love, hatred and every emotion in between, our personal inclinations, our personal triumphs in life as well as our personal failures. And, perhaps most importantly, the potential to do good and to do things well.
If the human soul had a place, I think that this is where it would be. Ironically, having generated that exact thought, the brain itself has done the choosing.
Nonetheless, for all my accolades to the accomplishments of the human brain, I opened my talk with two carefully chosen expressions. I extended my heartfelt thanks for being here. I gave all of you my heartiest congratulations.
What’s with this heart business?
It’s been a fascination of mine to reflect upon the fact that, on the one hand, it is the brain that is in control here. Yet on the other hand, we keep on going back, time and time again, to the heart. We don’t have many expressions that refer to the brain, but we surely do with respect to the heart. Here are some examples:
When we change our minds, we have a change of heart.
We have our best intentions at heart, when we need to defend ourselves when our behavior seems to be misunderstood.
We memorize something, and then we know it by heart.
Of course, we all know that absence makes the heart grow fonder.
Our hearts can be hardened, or in the right place. It can be in your mouth: it can break; we can try our hearts out. We can cross our hearts (and hope to die) to make sure people understand that we are telling the truth.
We can have a heart of gold or a heart of stone. And home is evidently where the heart is.
We can be sick at heart or wear our hearts on our sleeve. We can be young at heart, and if we decide to take another path from where we were going, we can always say that we just didn’t have the heart for it.
You might think that I’ve become a bit obsessed with this heart business, and you’re probably right. I even had a dream once that I was in the baggage claim at JFK and standing next to me was Tony Bennett, when he turned to me with a panicked look on his face and said, “Oh my God, I think I left my brain in San Francisco.”
Now the question remains: Who is responsible for all of us making so many references to the heart and relatively few to the brain? It turns out that many cultures around the world elevate the heart over the brain as the seat of the soul. Ancient Egyptians, for example, venerated the heart along with other bodily organs like the stomach and liver, placing them in special containers next to their mummified kings. The brain was simply thrown away.
But closer to home or at least closer to western European culture, the man with the greatest influence on this matter is the Greek philosopher, Aristotle, who wrote in the fourth century B.C., in De Anima (translated as On the Soul), his ideas about where the seat of the soul could be located.
Aristotle, at first, considered the brain as a possibility but rejected it in favor of (guess what) the heart. In a sense we can’t blame him. The heart had (and still does have) a peculiar ability to pulsate outside the body. It gives the appearance of containing life itself, a vital spirit of sorts. The brain just sits there.
By the way, Aristotle assigned the brain the basic task of cooling off the body through the top of the head. According to Aristotle, the brain was an air-conditioning unit, allowing hot gases to escape upward from the hot body that lay beneath.
As many of you know, Aristotle was to become the intellectual authority of the western world on just about everything for more than 2,000 years. It was not until the mid-1600s that it dawned on scientists (or at least western scientists --- Arabic scholars were more likely to think for themselves), to consider the brain in any serious way.
The cardiocentric (that is, heart-centered) viewpoint on the mind was the basis for all intellectual studies concerning the brain for a very long time. So, like it or not, we are carrying to this day the baggage of Aristotelian thought, and our everyday expressions reflect that.
But why do we feel so comfortable about expressing ourselves on a cardiological basis, when we know for a fact that there is no scientific basis for it?
Maybe, what we are doing linguistically is using the heart as a metaphor. Maybe, we are using the heart as a way of paying tribute to our growth as a human being, as a sensitive, caring, generous person rather than to our growth as a knowledgeable person, filled with facts and problem-solving capabilities.
Where does Phi Beta Kappa come in here? Why bring up the heart as well as the head on this occasion of being inducted into the oldest honorary society in America? Shouldn’t we be paying homage only to the latter?
You might recall that the admission standards for entry into Phi Beta Kappa, with its array of highly distinguished alumni throughout American history, are based upon academic excellence, to be sure. After all, this is the reason your grade point averages were scrutinized so carefully. But, as you probably know, that wasn’t the sole criterion for admission. The selection committee of this Hofstra chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, following the strict guidelines of all other chapters around the country, examined carefully what courses you took in your time at Hofstra.
A major concern, indeed the litmus test for acceptance, was the extent to which you were receiving and benefitting from a liberal education. By that I mean that you were not limiting yourselves to merely fulfilling requirements of your major, but were gaining, in addition, an understanding of issues in a breadth of inquiry --- in the humanities, in the social sciences, in philosophy and history.
It is a matter of respecting those founders of Phi Beta Kappa back in 1776, who were saying, in effect, “Let us make sure that it isn’t just the ‘brainiest’ people who become part of this new society – we want the complete package. We want the scientist to know about philosophy and history, and the philosopher and historian to know about science.”
The heart as the seat of the soul (or in modern parlance, the seat of the mind) may not be a fact, but metaphorically speaking, it may represent a worthy goal to strive for as we go along the continuing path of becoming an educated person, as we make the continuing effort throughout our lives to be a complete human being. Having met the high standards for initiation into Phi Beta Kappa, it can be said that all of you have taken an important step toward that goal.
All of this brings me back to the brain and the heart. I am forced to acknowledge a kind of metaphorical dualism. This metaphorical dualism (comprised of the brain and the heart, side by side, or, should I say, on the top and somewhere in the middle) is perfectly acceptable to me, even as an entirely-fulfilled academic, indulging my passion for understanding brain functioning in the research that I conduct in my specialized field.
Obviously, I chose to become a cognitive neuropsychologist, not a cardiologist, but I am comfortable with the heart in my expressions of compassion, of love, of generosity to others. I will continue to listen to Tony Bennett in the original form because I have come to feel that it is important to have (or strive to have) the best of both worlds: an accomplished brain and an accomplished heart.
Aristotle may not have been a great scientist by our standards today, but he was a great philosopher.
So I return to a modified version of my opening words. Tonight is indeed a celebration of the human brain, but it is also a celebration of the human heart. It is a celebration of our passion for understanding all aspects of the human experience.
It is the combination of the two that makes all of you worthy of the aspirations of Phi Beta Kappa. I believe, with all my heart, that we have an abundance of both in this room tonight.