Thinking Outside the (Skull) Box, Part 2
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 — Albert Einstein College of Medicine, New York
Thinking outside the box has become such a cliché that it tends to be meaningless. Advertisers want to convince us that eating granola instead of Wheaties or buying skinny jeans or switching to an electric razor is thinking outside the box. What’s actually radical is to see that we are thinking outside the box in every moment, if the box in question is the skull.
In the first post of this series we offered abundant research findings to show that “thinking” takes place in the intestinal tract, the heart, and elsewhere in the body. Thus the brain, commonly taken as the undisputed locale of the mind, is scientifically and medically acknowledged to be sharing its powers. More and more it looks as if every organ is the locale of its own version of mind. The ongoing discovery of self-contained networks of nerves in various organs is backed up by finding the ganglion cells that act like their own local brain support. In sum, there’s high-level nervous system activity distributed throughout the body, some of it feeding into the brain’s networks, some of it receiving outputs from the brain, and some of it functioning quite well without the brain at all.
Thinking is happening, in some guise or other, everywhere in your body all the time. This emerging view has the potential to rock our accepted understanding of mind itself. The brain looks more and more like an outcropping in a landscape that is permeated with varied forms of intelligence. Let’s explore the implications of this new model.
To begin, the immune system has been labeled a “floating brain.” In a very tangible way, your immune cells “decide” whether an invading substance is friend or foe, and if they decide wrong, you develop an allergy to harmless things – house dust, pollen, cat dander – that pose no danger and never needed to be repelled. Ask any allergy sufferer whether their allergy affects their thinking. The dullness, lack of energy, and depleted enthusiasm that many allergy sufferers experience leaves little doubt about how the immune system is part of a larger structure.
In the old model, nerves were like the wiring that brings electricity to every part of a house. But it’s not just the “wiring” of nerves that links brain to body. Hormones produced by all sorts of organs affect the way the brain works and how you experience your mind. Consider the mood changes experienced by many women around their menstrual period and menopause. Many mental events are triggered in similar ways. Ever feel sleepy after you’ve had too much birthday cake? Ever feel addled after you’re thrown accidentally from your bike? Hormones (such as estrogen, insulin, and cortisol) produced in response to internal and external factors, travel to the brain via the bloodstream, and then have profound effects on the nature of “your mind.” It’s not only the brain, then, that is creating your mind.
Looking at the brain itself reveals greater complexity to the mind-brain relationship. While people generally think of neurons as the particular brain cells that produce the mind (acting together in almost infinitely complex networks), there are other cells in the brain without which the neurons could not do their jobs – the glial cells, for example, which outnumber neurons and serve many essential tasks: conveying nutrients and oxygen to neurons, creating the myelin sheathes around the long axons of neurons to facilitate speedy signal transmission in some areas, stabilizing connections between neurons, cleaning up cellular debris from aging or injured cells. Indeed, while we conventionally think of glial cells as the servants of neurons, the truth is that neuroscience still knows very little about all the roles they play.
These cells themselves are not necessarily “of the brain.” Neurons mostly (though not always) derive from other resident cells, such as stem cells, in the brain, but some neurons and many glial cells arrive in the brain via the circulatory system – they are like nomads who eventually find a place to live permanently. Questions abound about how much this happens, by what mechanism for each cell type, and in which different regions of the brain it is taking place. All these questions are still being debated. (The production of some brain cells might happen by circulating stem cells that directly become neurons and glial cells, or by fusing with pre-existing cells.) It’s clear, however, that cells are trafficking between the body and the brain all the time.
The skull is not an impermeable barrier, nor is the famous “blood-brain barrier” that served to keep the brain in splendid chemical isolation. So the boundaries between brain and not-brain in the body are not clear cut. The brain is permeable to the rest of the body, signals streaming in and out, including from electrical connections by nerves, signaling molecules such as hormones, and cells trafficking in and out. In fact, there is no brain without the body and therefore no mind without the body, either.
To say the brain creates the mind is at best incomplete. In a simple analogy, every automobile needs an engine in order to run. But an engine by itself goes nowhere. Conversely, without an engine, a car body and wheels go nowhere. The functions that make a car a car require every part acting in concert. Likewise, the functions that our dynamic minds carry out are created by the body-brain complex, not by the brain alone. The brain has always been out of the box; it’s just been waiting for science to catch up.
These issues are culturally complicated because of unspoken rules about what is legitimate in science and what isn’t. Many of the experiences that people relate where the mind does not stay put in its box are often labeled as unscientific, if not illusions, hoaxes or superstitions. For any number of scientists and philosophers so-called out-of-body experiences (such as the now famous reports of a near-death experience) are considered off-limits, with automatic denigration of research that might validate them. Indeed, this is part of what makes the field of consciousness studies so controversial in the first place – it flouts some of science’s iron-clad assumptions.
Other, more common experiences, however, are not off-limits. Such diverse things as depression, love, dreaming, and remembering are being “explained” by examining brain activity through new forms of brain imaging. Even some uncommon, very exceptional experiences are also permitted for study: the feeling of “being in the zone” reported by high-performance athletes, for example. But no one argues that the study of this experience is unscientific or based on magical thinking just because it only happens in highly trained athletes. Similarly, when the mind doesn’t stay put in its box, this deserves to be investigated if only because, to begin with, everything human is worth investigating.
One final interesting fact, for now, to help us think outside the box: It relates to the electrical activity of the heart. It’s true that the pacemaker cells of the heart are modulated by the brain. Yet as doctors know, some patients with little brain function can still have reliable heartbeats –. The pacemaker cells of the heart, in its conduction system, are the heart’s own little brain, as we’ve already discussed. Your heart, being an electrical organ, also creates an electromagnetic field – the strongest of any tissue in the body – and its pattern of beats is responsive to other electromagnetic fields, even those outside the body. Here’s the fascinatingly evocative part: the strength of the field created by one heart appears to be strong enough to influence another person’s heart when they draw near to each other. Then the nervous systems of these two hearts perceive and respond to each other. Does love have its own physiology, shared by two “thinking” hearts?
So, where does the mind come from? Just from your brain or across the wider landscape of the brain-body complex? Even that expanded definition of mind must expand further; for the body is just another box that thinking is eager to go beyond, as when two lovers match their heartbeats. A loving parent consoling a child with a hug or a spouse sleeping soundly next to you night after night, year after year, is expanding the mind.
We hope we have begun to break down the walls around your own thinking so that you can imagine other cogent and, yes, scientific possibilities for explaining the nature of mind other than simply the brain as a computer doing what computers do. In Part Three we will discuss situations where people have repeatedly described their minds going outside the box of their skulls – and even beyond their skins – using examples from deep meditation and elsewhere that science should explore with fresh eyes and not consign to some unscientific Siberia.
Deepak Chopra, MD is the author of more than 70 books with twenty-one New York Times bestsellers, including co-author with Sanjiv Chopra, MD of Brotherhood: Dharma, Destiny, and The American Dream, and co-author with Rudolph Tanzi of Super Brain: Unleashing the Explosive Power of Your Mind to Maximize Health, Happiness, and Spiritual Well-being (Harmony). 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 — Albert Einstein College of Medicine, New York. www.neiltheise.com