The nature and role of the heart in man
The heart in different ways is relevant to the lives of most people. For Waldorf teachers and parents, how the heart is portrayed in the Waldorf school is also important.

One of the arguments that at times is used to demonstrate the "non-scientific" nature of science teaching at Waldorf schools is the teacher's description of the origin, development and function of the heart in the body and life of the human being.

Some Waldorf teachers are said to teach that "the heart is not a pump". If this were the only thing that was taught about the heart, it would constitute a simplified misunderstanding of the question "What is the heart?" Such a statement alone is both bad science and also a  misunderstanding of the insights one can develop out of anthroposophy on the issue.

In Waldorf education the description and discussion of the heart takes place during main lesson blocks on human physiology in middle school and later in Grade 10 physiology.

The general concept of the heart, since the days of Harvey, is that it basically constitutes a pump, with the primary function to pump blood through the circulatory system of humans and other organisms.

Waldorf education tries to develop a richer, more balanced picture of the heart, when discussing it, in a way that also makes the heart understandable in a unified way, not only as an organ of the body, but also as an organ of the soul.

Before developing into an embryo, the human egg is polarized into a vegetative pole and an "animal" pole. The polarization of the egg constitutes the basis for the later polarization of the human embryo into the development of nutritional organs out of the vegetative pole of the egg, and the organs of the nervous system out of the "animal" pole of the egg.

This development takes place via a further differentiation and development of three layers of the germ: an endoderm, a mesoderm and an ectoderm.

Out of the endoderm of the germ, the primitive gut and the main part of the digestive organs of the human will develop. Out of the ectoderm of the germ, the receptors and the nervous system will develop.

Out of the mesoderm of the germ, situated between the ectoderm and the endoderm, a mesenchyme will develop into the main part of the circulatory system of the fully grown organism.

In the fully developed fetus and later in the fully developed human, this process constitutes the origin and basis for what from a systematic biological perspective can be observed as: 
- our basic digestive and metabolic system
- our basic rhythmic circulatory/respiratory system and 
- our basic sense/nervous system.

The muscular system and the digestive metabolic system stand out as the primary biological basis for our "will". The polar organ systems to the limb-metabolic system, namely, the sense and nervous systems stand out as the primary biological basis for our "thinking". And the respiratory and circulatory system together constitute a basic rhythmical system, that stands out as the basic biological foundation for our life of feelings.

From this general systematic, biological human perspective, the heart stands out as the primary organ mediating in a rhythmical way between what is "above" in the human, that is, the sense and nervous system, and what is "below" in the human, that is, our digestive system, with its different organs. 

The intermediary nature of the heart can also be observed in the structure of its muscular tissue, which constitutes an intermediary form between the striated structure of those muscles that we use and can steer consciously, and the non-striated, smooth character of the muscles that we normally can't steer, constituting the muscles of the digestive system, functioning outside our consciousness. This intermediate position points to our half-conscious, dreamy relation to the processes and function of the heart.

The respiratory system in a similar way stands out as the basic organ for mediating in a rhythmical way between what is "inside" of the body, and what is "outside" of the body.

While the increasingly mechanistic thinking, starting before the industrial revolution, has led to a stress on picturing the heart as a "pump", a systematic, more closely biological perspective on the heart points to it more as a rhythmical regulatory organ in relation to the flow of the blood, than as a "pump".

Study of the development of circulation in the embryo of mammals also confirms this. It shows that blood circulation develops before the full development of the heart. The heart develops not primarily as a "pump" "pushing" blood through the developing circulatory system, but more as a node in the circulatory system, itself developing out of the rhythmical movement of the blood, as an expression and stabilizer of the rhythmical movement of the blood through the circulatory system.

These facts point to the markedly non-biological one-sidedness of the picture and understanding of the heart as a mechanical "pump". 

What is taught in Waldorf education depicts the heart more in its rhythmical, regulatory function out of the biological perspective of the three basic organ systems of the human being, based on an embryological understanding of human development.

The picture presented by the Waldorf teacher points more to the mutuality of the movement of the blood and the function of the heart in this movement, with the heart acting more as a regulator and rhythmical and rhythmicizing stabilizer of the blood than as a "pump".

While the statement "the heart is not a pump" may stand out as an oversimplification of the understanding of the heart from a systems biological perspective, from an embryological perspective such a statement stands out as more true to reality than the opposite simplification "the heart is merely a pump". Both perspectives point to our still incomplete understanding of the heart, not only as a biological organ, but also an organ of the soul and spirit of the human being.


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Copyright 2004-2006: Robert Mays and Sune Nordwall