The Egyptians, Greeks (e.g. Aristotle), and Chinese certain did so. They believed that thinking was done by the heart.

Was this true about all major ancient civilizations? Were there exceptions?

Historical conceptions be inferred via traces in different languages. For instance, people say "I learned this by heart", not "I learned this by brain", in English. This likely reflect how English-speaking people thought about the role of the heart in the past and then got passed on to us as idioms.

Preliminary research: I found some related articles. However, these sources tend to focus on the West (broadly construed), but do not cover many other major ancient cultures that somewhat developed independently, and thus my question.

  • @LarsBosteen What I meant is what we say today in English is passed on to us as historical usages, and those usages reflected the thinking of the people in the past.
    – J Li
    May 22, 2021 at 10:16
  • @MCW Just edited. Let me know if I should expand more.
    – J Li
    May 22, 2021 at 10:20
  • Speculating about a possible exception.... In island Southeast Asian languages (Malay, Javanese, etc.) the common word for the seat of love and related emotions (hati, ati, etc.) is translated as "heart" when used metaphorically but literally means "liver". I've not seen a thorough explanation of why this is or the history behind it. I also know that in Spanish the word for liver (higado) is also used metaphorically as a source of will (something like "guts" in English) but they still use the heart (corazón) as the site of love, etc. like other European languages.
    – Brian Z
    May 22, 2021 at 12:41
  • I learned this by heart may mean, learned emotionally, because in cases of strong emotions the heart rhithmic changes.
    – Anixx
    May 22, 2021 at 14:22
  • 1
    @Brian in Russian also we say "I feel this with the liver" to mean "I feel this with the guts"
    – Anixx
    May 22, 2021 at 14:25

1 Answer 1


This is not a definitive answer, but I just read some lists of proverbs from various cultures and compiled a few below.

The two things I would say are held in common by the samples below:

  1. The heart is the seat of emotion, whether joy or sorrow.

  2. The heart is the seat of moral character, whether virtue or wickedness.

In our modern understanding, we might distinguish those things from the role of the "cognitive organ". For us, that phrase suggests reason and logic. However, their absence in the proverbs below does not, in my opinion, mean that they thought that reason and logic were situated elsewhere. Rather, I think they would fold it into (2) above; decision-making ultimately reflects your character.

At least one author, Silva (1975), says that the Hebrew term for heart denotes "the seat of the mental faculties" (p. 106) (and even says this influenced the range of Greek kardia), which I'd take as the same conclusion: "mental faculties" refers both to "cognitive organ" and to (1) and (2) above.

Random sampling of "heart"-related proverbs. (I tried to exclude ones that could easily have been paraphrases by the translator, e.g. "I was sick at heart". You could of course find better, more comprehensive collections, throw out mine, and improve methodology in other ways, but this is just to suggest a direction.)


  • When I married a malicious husband, when I bore a malicious son, an unhappy heart was assigned to me.

  • A loving heart builds houses. A hating heart destroys houses.

  • As if it were a fertile spot, the heart does not abandon the good.

  • Utu's glance is prayerful. Utu's heart is compassionate.

  • The rich man's heart is sick, it is very sick indeed.

  • That which matches my tears hurts my heart alike.


  • Upon a glad heart oil is poured out of which no one knows.

Hebrew (Biblical):

  • As water reflects the face, so one’s life reflects the heart.

  • A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.

  • Let love and faithfulness never leave you ... write them on the tablet of your heart.

  • Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.

  • Deceit is in the hearts of those who plot evil, but those who promote peace have joy.

  • Luke - thank you so much for the detailed and helpful answer. Indeed, it never occurred to me -- until you mentioned -- that people may not have distinguished emotional and rational modes of thinking. That makes perfect sense.
    – J Li
    Jul 3, 2021 at 19:21

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