Deepak Chopra: Thinking Outside the (Skull) Box (Part 10)

Skeleton InvertedClick here to read Part 9!

By Deepak Chopra, M.D., Menas C. Kafatos, Ph.D., P. Murali Doraiswamy, MBBS, Rudolph E. Tanzi, Ph.D., Neil Theise, MD

So your genome – the sum total of your genetic inheritance – is not sufficient to code for the entire structure of your digestive tract. You are alive because of your connection to the outside world; indeed, there is no boundary between you and the outside world’s abundance of life.

This realization changes the picture of genes, too. They code for your cells, tissues, and organs; moreover, genes code for the interactions between your cells and the neighboring bacteria, with biomolecules being passed back and forth. The biochemistry of digestion is a shared project between your body and bacteria, a basic fact acknowledged for decades, but by implication, without bacteria there can be no you.

This observation can be extended in every direction. Without trees breathing in carbon dioxide and exhaling oxygen, you couldn’t breathe – the forests are part of your lungs. Without viruses constantly mutating, you would have many fewer antibodies – every virus is part of your immune system. The rivers that circulate fresh water are part of your bloodstream. These connections aren’t incidental. Your body is the world, and by extension, so is your brain, since you share with the world every molecule, chemical reaction, and electrical impulse that constitutes the brain.

It makes people woozy to accept that there is no boundary between “me” and the whole world. What about the skin? It is portrayed in high school biology class as an impermeable barrier protecting you from invaders assaulting the body from “out there.” But the metaphor of the skin as living armor isn’t viable. Pause and move your hand, observing how the wrist and finger joints move under the skin. Why doesn’t the skin break down with all this motion, the push and pull of your fingers closing and extending, your arm bending and stretching? Because the bacteria lining the creases in your skin digest the cell membranes of dying skin cells and produce lanolin, which lubricates the skin. How long would “you” and your genome last if your skin were cracking, open to infection just from typing on a laptop or waving goodbye to someone?

What is your body now? It’s no longer just a human body. It’s a community of single cell organisms that function harmoniously together (in times of good health) organizing themselves into tissues and organs. Such astonishingly complex cooperation implies a host of surprising things:

  • Your genes are siblings of bacterial genes.
  • The evolution of bacteria is actually human evolution at the same time.
  • One intelligence binds micro-organisms and “higher” life forms.
  • There is no sharp dividing line between “smart” creatures and the “dumb” micro-organisms that evolved alongside them.

A skeptic may protest that we’ve used physical evidence to support a theory of mind. But science does the same thing all the time. By equating mind and brain, neuroscience has backed itself into a corner, forced to explain thoughts by looking at the interaction of molecules. In the final post of this series, we’ll get out of that corner by putting mind first and brain second. That way, we solve the problem of how molecules of hydrogen, oxygen, and carbon – the majority of “stuff” in the brain – learned to think. The obvious answer is that they didn’t. We think because we are expressions of the mind, not robots being operated by the brain.

(To be continued…)

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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