Thinking Outside the (Skull) Box (Part 4)

Arrival on my WayClick here to read Part 3!

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

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.

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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 and host of Sages and Scientists Symposium 

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 ofSuper 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