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

In modern medical science, the brain is the seat of consciousness, thought, memory, and emotion. But in traditional Chinese medicine, 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”, and “be enthroned in the hearts of”.

In traditional Chinese medicine, the brain is deemed to be the accumulating center of marrow. The book “Suwen” (素問), one of traditional Chinese medical classics, says, “All of marrow belongs to the brain.” Another traditional medical classic “Lingshu” (靈樞) says, “The brain is the sea of marrow.” About the functions of the brain, they are more related to eyes and ears. The book “Suwen” 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 “Lingshu” 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 traditional Chinese medicine. 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 traditional Chinese medicine, the treatment of mental or emotional disorders is generally to regulate the functioning of related internal organs, especially the heart. In contrast, many mental or emotional disorders are ascribed to neuroses in modern medical science, and doctors often uses ataractic medicines or psychotherapy.

Some of the Taoist works, such as “Daoshu” (道樞) which was written in the Southern Song Dynasty, regard the brain as the seat of spirit. Such kind of thoughts originated partly from long-term experience and partly from meditation. Li Shizhen (李時珍), a great scholar of traditional medicine, also cited the words “the brain is the seat of spirit” in his great herbal encyclopedia “Compendium of Materia Medica” (本草綱目). Since the later years of the Ming Dynasty, some of the Western medical knowledge were brought to China by European missionaries. Some Chinese doctors might accept new knowledge, but the traditional concept “the heart is the seat of spirit” was still rooted.

Which is the seat of spirit, the heart or the brain? Such a dispute doesn’t stop. 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.

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