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heartstrings ‘Heartstrings’ was first used in nonanatomical literature in the late fifteenth century to describe the nerves and tendons thought to keep the heart in place. The use of the term ‘nerves’ may be misleading and may have been occasioned by translating the Greek ‘neuron’, a term used by Aristotle in Parts of Animals III to describe sinews or fibres located in the heart, perhaps the chordae tendineae. The term ‘heartstrings’ has also been used synonymously with ‘precordia’, a term used incorrectly to refer to the pericardium.

In a symbolic sense, ‘heartstrings’ are the deepest or most intense emotions and affections. Edmund Spencer (1522–99) used the term figuratively in Faerie Queene (iv, vi) in 1597. In the Timaeus, Plato (427–347 bce) located the spirited part of the soul, which governed behaviours we now term emotions, in the heart, and associated the throbbing of the heart in emotional situations with an intensification of the heart's heat. Galen (ad 129–216), whose physiology was influential until the Renaissance, accepted Plato's location of the spirited part of the soul. Passions were described in terms of heat or a lack of it, as illustrated in phrases such as ‘surrounded by the warmth of love’, ‘the heat of anger’, and ‘cool disdain’. The standard medieval and Renaissance view that the heart is hot originated with Aristotle (384–422 bce) and was accepted by Galen, William Harvey (1578–1657), and René Descartes (1596–1650). Furthermore, Aristotle believed that all animals possessed an innate spirit originating in the heart, the centre of the body. He asserted in Parts of Animals III that ‘all motions of sensation, including those produced by what is pleasant and painful’ begin and end in the heart. In Movement of Animals Aristotle likened the body's actions to those of a marionette, in that the bones correspond to the pegs and the sinews to the strings which cause movements. Therefore, as the locus of thought and sensation in Aristotle's philosophy, the actions of the heart could occasion considerable changes throughout the body, such as blushing, pallor, shuddering, or trembling — in short, manifestations of emotional reactions. It is now understood that the autonomic nervous system accelerates the heart rate and causes general bodily effects in emotional situations, thus explaining why such situations seem to ‘tug at the heart strings’.

Kristen L. Zacharias

See also emotion; heart.