Which is the Seat of Spirit, the Heart or the Brain?

In the modern medical science, the brain is the seat of consciousness, thought, memory, and emotion. But in the traditional Chinese medical science, such a seat is ascribed to the heart. Not only ancient Chinese, but also ancient Egyptian, thought that the heart is the seat of spirit. Aristotle also regarded the heart as the source of consciousness and the center of thought. In the English language, there are many such kind of idioms such as “at heart”, “by heart”, “free heart”, “false heart”, “go home to ones heart”, and “be enthroned in the hearts of”.

In the traditional Chinese medical science, the brain is deemed to be the accumulating center of marrow. The book “Su Wen” (素问), one of the traditional Chinese medical classics, says, “All of marrow belongs to the brain.” Another traditional medical classic “Ling Shu” (灵枢) says, “The brain is the sea of marrow.” About the functions of the brain, they are more related to eyes and ears. The book “Su Wen” says, “The head is the seat of clearness.” Some scholars misunderstand the words and think the word “clearness” means clear consciousness. But in fact, the word “clearness” is pointed to clear eyesight. The book “Ling Shu” says that, the eyes connected with the brain. And this book also says, “If the sea of marrow is deficient, the person will be dim-sighted and sleepy, and he will suffer from vertigo and tinnitus.” How does the brain influence seeing and hearing? Eyes and ears are nourished by the marrow in the brain, and the deficiency of such energy can impair the functioning of eyes and ears.

The seat of consciousness is the heart, but the origins of thoughts and emotions are divided into different internal organs in the traditional Chinese medical science. Gladness originates from the heart; anger originates from the liver; worry and anxiety originate from the spleen; sadness and melancholy originate from the lungs; fear originates from the kidneys. So, in the traditional Chinese medical science, the treatment of mental or emotional disorders is generally to regulate the functioning of related internal organs, especially the heart. However, in the Western medical science, many mental or emotional disorders are ascribed to neuroses. For neuroses, the Western medical science often uses ataractic medicines and psychotherapies. Ataractic medicines have serious side effects, and psychotherapies are not convenient and often have no obvious effect. If the patients who suffer from neuroses receive the treatment of the traditional Chinese medicine, the symptoms will be improved well and they won’t suffer from any side effect.

It should be pointed out that, some of the Taoist works, such as “Dao Shu” (道枢) which was written in the Southern Song Dynasty, regard the brain as the seat of spirit. Such kind of thoughts of course originated from the long-term experience that the Taoists tried their best to keep their health and get long life. Li Shizhen (李时珍), a great scientist of pharmacology, also cited the word “The brain is the seat of spirit” in his great pharmacological work “Compendium of Materia Medica” (本草纲目). Since the later years of the Ming Dynasty, the Western medical knowledge was brought to China by some European missionaries such as Matteo Ricci, Nicolao Longobardi, Julio Aleni, Johann Terrentius, and Giacomo Rho. Some Chinese doctors were influenced, but the traditional concept “the heart is the seat of spirit” was still rooted, because it is really very effective to treat mental and emotional disorders with the medicines which regulate the functioning of internal organs.

Which is the seat of spirit, the heart or the brain? Such a dispute is still continuing in the traditional medical community of nowadays China. But this is only a theoretic dispute. For mental and emotional disorders, the treatment which is to regulate the functioning of internal organs is still applied widely clinically by the doctors of traditional medicine, because it is obviously effective.

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