After spending some time with a struggling student today, I did some research on the brain. I was primarily interested in looking at how it takes in and processes information. While sifting through articles and reports, it occurred to me that it feels strange to think of the brain as an organ and so in the same category as a lung or a kidney. The brain seems far too special and sophisticated to be lumped in with all of our other inner stuff. It’s often the same way with the heart, when we hear it described as a muscle. That word, muscle, just doesn’t seem pretty enough for the organ we associate with love. We want our hearts to look like Valentines.
Speaking of love, if you’ve ever lost it, it won’t surprise you to hear that one can in fact die of a broken heart. The medical term for such an event is takotsubo cardiomyopathy. The American Heart Association reports that the condition is named after octopus traps that are said to resemble “the stricken heart.” On finding this out, I clicked to see images of the traps and now wish that I hadn’t. As it turns out, trapped cephalopods can go some way toward breaking a human heart. It wasn’t worth it. The traps just look like pots.
Unlike the heart, the brain is not a muscle. It doesn’t look like one and it’s not strong like one. It doesn’t lift like our biceps do, for example, or pound like our hearts. Instead, the brain tells the biceps and heart what to do. Right now, my brain is telling me to tell you that another name for takotsubo cardiomyopathy is stress-induced cardiomyopathy. Earlier today, Psychology Today told me that the brain “responds dramatically” to heartbreak and is itself responsible for the physical pain that we feel in our darkest times. According to the article I read, this pain is described by sufferers as “nearly unbearable” and by doctors as being akin to symptoms experienced by addicts withdrawing from cocaine or opioids. Researchers noted the similarities by looking at MRI’s. I did not click on any images; I was too worried about my heart.
I feel like I’ve said a lot already, but this post is not about language. I did learn at least one new word today, takotsubo, but that was not my goal. This post is not about octopus traps. This post is even less about guns. This post started because I wanted to know something about the brain but wound up searching the heart. I ended up in places that I’ve been trying to avoid, reading articles about young survivors of school shootings who ended their lives because the brain is a brutal messenger. And I read about one father of a Newtown student who must have lived in unbearable pain for years and then died at his own hand of a trapped and broken heart.
After the day I’ve had, I remind you to be wary when doing any kind of research online. Because when you search for anything, just about any term will yield a wide array of results. The first result that caught my eye today was one that read, “Why is the heart a muscle and not an organ? Is it both an organ and a muscle?” I clicked. The answer given described the heart as “an organ made from muscle.” For some reason, that description made me profoundly sad, as did the cross-section of heart tissue that looked nothing like a Valentine. The writer answering the question, Sarah C, went on to judge the fact that the heart is mainly muscle as being a “good thing.” It is. Of course, it is. The heart must be strong. Sarah’s last sentence started, “Hope this helps….”
If you or someone that you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide, there is help. Please visit https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/.
For more information on takotsubo cardiomyopathy, please visit https://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/cardiomyopathy/what-is-cardiomyopathy-in-adults/is-broken-heart-syndrome-real.
For more information on how heartbreak impacts the brain, please visit https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-squeaky-wheel/201801/3-surprising-ways-heartbreak-impacts-your-brain.