Valentine’s Day has come and gone, but the little hearts that recently decorated classrooms, candy, and cards continue year round in the form of emojis, doodles, and more. Heart symbols are synonymous with love and happiness — but, did you ever wonder just how this beloved shape came to be called a heart when, well, it doesn’t actually look anything like a human heart at all?
It turns out that the history behind these adorable heart shapes is far more complicated than you ever could have guessed.
Human civilizations have been fascinated by the heart for thousands of years, with ancient poets and philosophers seeing the human heart as the center of emotion and love. In fact, Aristotle and Plato both saw the heart as the cornerstone of human emotions, perhaps giving the heart its love connection. The truth is that there isn’t any one known reason why the heart symbol as we know it is so different from the hearts beating inside of our chests, but there are certainly a few major hypotheses.
While many early civilizations had their guesses as to the heart’s actual appearance, one major theory is that the ancient Greeks and a certain praised plant may be the main reason for the heart’s depiction as we view it today.
In ancient Greece, there was a city known as Cyrene, where a beloved plant, called silphium, grew wildly. It was considered by the Greeks and the Romans to be an extraordinary plant, with the ability to cure disease and possibly act as a form of birth control. This plant became as valuable as any gold, making the city incredibly wealthy, with the image of the silphium plant even being printed on the money of the city of Cyrene — it was a flowery plant (related to fennel) with seed pods that almost perfectly resemble the not-at-all-human heart shape that we know today.
It seems that these ancient civilizations loved this plant to literal death, overharvesting it to the point where evidence of its existence can no longer be found today. However, the symbol of those seeds may have carried on into the symbol that we know now as the heart.
While this is the most popular theory, it’s far from a sure thing. The history of the heart shape is really quite convoluted and debated, but other hypotheses behind the modern symbol of love include the Catholic Church (a reported vision by Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque involved the modern day heart symbol), the dissections of small animals with hearts resembling the modern shape, and a basic misunderstanding of human anatomy that was common in earlier times. Even Aristotle himself was said to have been incorrect about the anatomy of the heart, believing it to be of a smaller structure with less chambers. Artists modeling themselves after Aristotle’s incorrect assumptions might have also had an influence on the unique shape that we see today.
Of course, eventually, we learned what the human heart really looks like — but, by the time this happened, our simpler image of the heart was such a popular part of human culture that it couldn’t be so easily replaced by the anatomically correct image.
These days, we know that when our hearts race and our palms sweat whenever our crush is around, all of these messages are being sent via a complicated process involving our brain, not our hearts, specifically. We also know that our heart is made up of four chambers, with two on the top and two on the bottom. These two top chambers are known as the left atrium and the right atrium (or the atria). The bottom chambers, meanwhile, are the left and right ventricles. When your heart fills with blood, it fills the top chambers. The ventricles, meanwhile, send the blood back through the body.
As you can see, your heart is already much more complicated than the hearts you see on Valentine’s Day. Add in other major players, like the septum separating the right and left side of the heart, and the four valves that control blood flow, and you definitely have a very different image of a heart.
Learn More at the SSA!
Are you as fascinated by the heart as the ancient philosophers? Session 1 and Session 2 of this year’s Summer Science Academy features courses in pre-health science that can help satisfy your curiosity, and set you on the path toward an amazing science career as an eligible McDaniel College scholarship recipient.
In our first session, held from June 17th-June 21st, you can participate in How the Heart Works, this session’s pre-health science course. In our second session, held from June 24th – June 28th, you can experience Medical Anatomy. You certainly won’t have to worry about not being able to draw a proper heart!
Want to venture outside the heart realm? Check out our third session, offering courses in forensic science, marine science, and even cooking science! Summer Science Academy is as entertaining as it is enriching, with both day and evening activities for high school aged students. Take a closer look at our exciting program.