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Why is the heart a symbol of love?

Collection of different red hand-drawn hearts. Design on white background.
Happy-Lucky
/
iStock
Collection of hand-drawn hearts.

Why is the heart a symbol of love? Why do people draw hearts when they love someone? Why do we draw hearts the way we do when they're nothing like the hearts inside of your body? And do we need a heart to love or does the brain do it? We’re learning all about hearts and symbolism with Thomas and Stephen Amidon, authors of The Sublime Engine: A Biography of the Human Heart.

Download our learning guides: PDF | Google Slide | Transcript

  • No one really knows where the heart symbol comes from, but there are theories. One is that the heart shape comes from the shape of the leaves of a now-extinct plant called silphium, which was considered a key component of a love potion in the time of the Romans. Another theory is that St. Valentine used the symbol when arranging secret marriages. Another is that it was simply a guess of what the human heart looked like.

  • Love and other emotions are actually regulated in the brain, not the heart. Specifically, a part of the brain called the amygdala.

  • People might partly associate the heart with strong emotions like love because when we get excited to see someone, our heart sometimes beats faster, and we notice our heartbeat. We aren’t really aware of what’s happening in our brain.

  • The human heart pumps blood to all parts of your body. The heart beats once a second. If you live to the age of 70, your heart will have beat about 2 billion times!!  

Resources

How the heart actually pumps blood - TEDEd

Your Hardworking Heart and Spectacular Circulatory System by Paul Mason

Heart and Circulatory System Activities

Jane Lindholm is the host, executive producer and creator of But Why: A Podcast For Curious Kids. She also produces special projects for the station. Until March 2021, she was the host of the award-winning Vermont Public Radio program Vermont Edition.
Melody is the senior producer for But Why: A Podcast For Curious Kids.