posted 2012-05-13 01:07:01


This week: it’s amore!

Tara Bohensky

Staff Writer

Image courtesy of
Valentine’s day is long gone and gone along with it, for most women at least, is that whirlwind of romance and chivalrous behavior on the part of fiances, boyfriends and significant others. With that, of course, went the hearts that plastered every inch of New York City for the better part of a month. Since way before any of us was born, the heart has been the universal symbol of love. It is passionate and graceful. It burns with inner fire. It breaks. It shatters. It can be made whole once again by yet another heart. All very touching. However, I never quite understood the connection between the Februarian world of the Lovey-Dovey and the mass of bloody twisted muscle that palpitates inside the chest of every living thing. Yes, hearts are awesome. Yes, they are mind bogglingly intricate and complicated. Do they seem delicate? Are they even in the remotest sense, romantic? What do you think?

That big red blob inside your thorax, or chest cavity, is a complicated system of valves and cavities whose collective purpose is to shuttle blood. Your vena cava (the vein that collects deoxygenated blood) empties its cargo into the upper right side of your heart, called the right atrium. From there, the blood passes through the tricuspid valve into a larger chamber known as the right ventricle. The right ventricle is surrounded by a relatively thin layer of cardiac muscle, because contraction of this chamber doesn’t need to push your blood very far, just through the pulmonary artery to your lungs, where the blood fills up on oxygen and dumps its carbon dioxide.

From the lungs, blood then returns via pulmonary veins, to the upper left chamber of your heart, called the left atrium. It then passes through the mitral valve into the lower left chamber, the left ventricle. Normally, the muscle of the left ventricle is about double the thickness of the right chamber, because from this area, blood is catapulted through the aorta to the rest of the body, and it needs to have enough momentum to get where it needs to go, that is all over.

You’ve made it this far, now you’re wondering, why do I care? There are a few reasons. Your heart is an extremely powerful pump, and it never stops. Every hour it pumps approximately 1900 gallons of blood through your body systems. If that were jet fuel, it would be enough to power a Boeing 737 for a two hour flight, takeoff, cruise, landing and fuel reserve included. If only people could fly. Power comes with its preferences though.

The cells of your heart muscles, known as cardiocytes, are exceedingly fickle. The muscle of the heart cannot compensate for lack of oxygen perfusion. Your heart doesn’t have a backup plan. An inadequate supply of O2 can cause necrosis, or tissue death, in minutes. Your heart tissue also does not do a very good job of regeneration. So once a piece of your heart is dead, it stays that way. Uh oh.

Don’t try this at home, because you probably wouldn’t be around long enough to freak out at the results, but here’s the thing: your heart has an electrical system of contractile stimulation that is completely independent of the rest of your body. In other words, if you took a knife, cut out your heart, and immediately dumped it into an ionic solution (salt water would probably be the simplest to find at home), it would continue to beat in the bowl for a few hours. Again, don’t try it. Maybe you’ll find it on youtube, but that’s not recommended either, it could be emotionally scarring.

Like any muscle, a heart that gets exercised will gain muscle mass, and function more efficiently. That’s why athletes usually have bigger hearts, and a condition called bradycardia, which means that their hearts beat more slowly, because each beat delivers more blood to necessary areas. However, in a couch potato these same symptoms are cause for serious concern, as they point out an individual’s increased risk for a heart attack. So, it’s probably a good idea to use your gym membership.

Having read the details and seen the picture, maybe you’ve decided that the heart isn’t the best symbol of love. However, I tend to disagree. Maybe it’s because I’m a scientist, maybe it’s because I’m odd, but I think that the guts and the gore and the mind numbing detail of the heart are what make it worthy of being the symbol of love. It gives life, as does love. It lasts as long as you live, as we all hope love will last. Ba-Dum. Have a great summer!