Thinking Outside the (Skull) Box – Part 6
By Deepak Chopra, M.D., FACP, Menas C. Kafatos, Ph.D., Fletcher Jones Endowed Professor in Computational Physics, Chapman University, P. Murali Doraiswamy, MBBS, FRCP, Professor of Psychiatry, Duke University Medical Center, Durham, North Carolina, Rudolph E. Tanzi, Ph.D., Joseph P. and Rose F. Kennedy Professor of Neurology at Harvard University, and Director of the Genetics and Aging Research Unit at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), Neil Theise, MD, Professor, Pathology and Medicine, (Division of Digestive Diseases) Beth Israel Medical Center — Mount Sinai School of Medicine, New York
In our last post we explored how your body and brain are not just your body and brain – from a 21st-century scientific perspective, you are also a teeming community composed of single-cell organisms. A tiny portion of the body are human cells (yours) while perhaps a hundred times more are mostly bacteria and archaea, known all together as the microbiome. Let’s go several steps further into this scientific re-examination of this thing you call your body.
Intellectually you know that your body today isn’t the same as the body you had in the past. But if you tune in, you generally feel the present you in continuity with yesterday’s, you and all the others going back to childhood. You can imagine even going back to a fetus in the womb and the fertilized ovum from which the fetus grew. That first egg and sperm are derived without interruption from your parents’ living bodies. There is no gap where the life of your mother and father stopped and yours began. The flow of life is seamless back to your mother’s womb, and further back as far as human ancestry can go.
Even as we cross species boundaries in our backward journey, to Homo erectus and Homo habilis, our distant forebears, there are no gaps in life, not between you and hominids roaming the African savannah millions of years ago, not between you and the earliest single-cell organisms that were the first emerging life forms on our planet. So you can think of yourself as one living being. You may feel separate in space, occupying a warm and cozy apartment that is unlike a primordial pond covered in blue-green algae. But think about how your skin sheds cells, not just dead epidermal cells but living bacteria that coat your skin in a fine layer. They have separated from you, and yet they are still you. This apparent separation is only in space. In time, there is no separation, there is continuity extending over eons, and time is where we live.
By expanding “you” beyond a package of skin and bones that was born on a certain day and will die one day in the future, you merge with the flow of life as a whole. In other words, you have adopted the perspective of life itself. How old are you, then? At the everyday level of scale you count how many candles there are on your last birthday cake. But take in the 400 trillion microorganisms that are the largest biological part of “you.” Single cells can only reproduce by division. One amoeba divides in two. These aren’t the amoeba’s children. They are simply it, split in half. In a very real sense, all the amoebas alive today are the first amoeba, and the same goes for all the trillions of micro-organisms that occupy your body (and are necessary for it to survive, as we saw in previous posts. They aren’t free riders).
As “you” expand, boundaries melt away. Since the entire mass of animal and plant life on Earth traces back to single-cell creatures, “you” are one enormous 3.5-billion-year-old being. Separation in space makes each of us think we are individuals. And we are. But the continuum of time at the cellular scale reveals an equal reality: we are united as a single biological being. In fact, the continuity of life becomes stronger as we move to even smaller and smaller scales, where seamless properties essential to life are already present. Which means that the properties of “you” – intelligence, self-organization, evolution, and a seamless flow of life – exist at all scales.
Consider the molecular and atomic levels of scale. There is no atom in your body that did not derive from something eaten, drunk, or breathed from the substance of the planet. Whether we talk about the “you” that is sitting in a chair reading this sentence or the “you” that is a single enormous 3.5-billion-year-old being, neither lives on the planet – in a sense they are the planet. Your living body is the self-organization of the substance of the Earth itself – minerals, water, and air – into zillions of life forms. Earth plays Scrabble, forming different words as the letters are recombined (in this case, genetic letters), and although some words, like “human,” run away to live on their own, they forget who owns the game.
If “you” are a recreational pastime for the planet, what does it have in mind for its next move? Games involve a lot of repetition, but there has to be novelty as well, with records to break and highest scores to shatter. Earth decided that “you” needed a new playing field. At one level, the Mars probe named Curiosity can be viewed as a separate human achievement, and a very complex one. It involved skilled, clever engineers and scientists who figured out how to make a robot, propel it to another world, have it land, and then send information back to us.
But there’s another way of looking at it. Just as reasonably, logically, and scientifically, our living planet Earth has been working toward reaching out to touch its neighbor, Mars, for 3.5 billion years (at least). It has taken this long for Earth to create living things out of its own substance that could eventually figure out how to take more of the same substance, fashion it into a rocket and a robot, and take “you” off planet. (In the case of the moon, “you” actually landed on it, yourself.)
While “you,” focused on the separate self, were busy discovering fire, inventing agriculture, writing sacred texts, making war, having sex, and other survival stratagems, Earth was busy organizing, through these activities, landing on the moon and tapping Mars on the shoulder. If this image strikes you as being too fanciful, look at the activity of your brain. You are conscious of having a purpose in mind when you walk, talk, work, and love. But it is undeniable that many brain activities are unconscious (e.g., controlling body temperature, growth, blood pressure), while the activity of the brain as a whole is totally unknown, either by you or any single region of your brain. Whatever makes Earth a totality makes your brain a totality. Therefore, it isn’t fanciful to think of Earth as moving in a coherent, unified direction, just as your brain has from the moment you were born.
Or to put it in a word, if you (as a person) have a purpose, then you (as life on Earth) have a purpose. The two are seamless, even if it suits our pride, and our unfathomable ego, to stand above and separate from our surroundings. Where does that leave mind? Mind is something that condenses in some spaces, expands in others, functioning at everyday levels of scale, planetary levels of scale, and microscopic levels of scale. The smallest aspects of mind can be contained within larger aspects, just as molecules are contained within cells that are contained within bodies, and so on.
Science in the 21st century builds upon its long-held ambition to comprehend the very smallest and largest scales of Nature, and it was always hoped – even taken for granted – that a set of fixed principles would suffice for the whole journey of discovery. That hope broke down when Newton’s set of laws didn’t fit the quantum world. Now the set of rules in the quantum world don’t fit the latest problems, such as what came before the Big Bang, the origin of life, and the appearance of mind in the universe. In this post we’ve been arguing that “you” exist no matter how large or small the scale under consideration. You are beyond any horizons of scale, any boundaries that your mind believes exist. The Vedas speak of Brahman (reality) being bigger than the biggest and smaller than the smallest. In modern terminology, this means “you.” We’ll finish in the next post with the mind-blowing conclusions that such reasoning leads to.
(To be cont.)
Deepak Chopra, MD is the author of more than 75 books translated into over 35 languages with over twenty New York Times bestsellers. Chopra serves as Founder of The Chopra Foundation.
Menas Kafatos, Ph.D., Fletcher Jones Endowed Professor in Computational Physics, Director of the Center of Excellence at Chapman University, co-author with Deepak Chopra of the forthcoming book, Who Made God and Other Cosmic Riddles. (Harmony)
P. Murali Doraiswamy, MBBS, FRCP, Professor of Psychiatry, Duke University Medical Center, Durham, North Carolina and a leading physician scientist in the area of mental health, cognitive neuroscience and mind-body medicine.
Rudolph E. Tanzi, Ph.D., Joseph P. and Rose F. Kennedy Professor of Neurology at Harvard University, and Director of the Genetics and Aging Research Unit at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), co-author with Deepak Chopra of Super Brain: Unleashing the Explosive Power of Your Mind to Maximize Health, Happiness, and Spiritual Well-being. (Harmony)
Neil Theise, MD, Professor, Pathology and Medicine, (Division of Digestive Diseases) and Director of the Liver and Stem Cell Research Laboratory, Beth Israel Medical Center — Mount Sinai School of Medicine, New York. www.neiltheise.com neiltheise.wordpress.com