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The natural world. Looking pretty for 3.5b years.

You are only your chemicals

Author: Guest Writer/Wednesday, July 25, 2012/Categories: Uncategorized

'Science of Compassion' conference in Telluride delves into deepest mysteries, debunks them

By Reilly Capps

Here's a story that made the rounds at a scientific conference this weekend:

Researchers interested in the effects of mediation on the brain recruited Buddhist monks for a study. When they started attaching electrodes to the monks' heads, the monks started laughing. Why, the scientists asked, were the monks laughing? The researchers were attaching wires to the wrong part of the body, the monks said. They ought to place the wires over their hearts. Jul202012_0232-4

At Telluride's "Science of Compassion" conference this weekend, listeners heard that story and hummed, deeply and collectively, "mmmmmmm." The "mmmmmm" of approval. The "mmmmmm" of truths being revealed. The "mmmmm" heard all weekend.

When I told that same story to a different scientist, he did like the monks: he laughed.

"It's so stupid," he said. "It's in the head. Meditation happens in the head. Everything happens in the head. The heart's a pump."

Buddhist monks, in other words, are total idiots.

Sorry. The word "idiot" is not compassionate, and it's not accurate. An "Idiot" is technically someone with an IQ below 25. These monks and these mmmmmmmers are probably -- scientifically speaking -- at least "imbeciles," which denotes an IQ between 26 and 50. Science is all about precision.

Jul202012_0028-2I learned at the conference -- which was put on by the Telluride Institute and Stanford's Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education -- that science has thrown out primitive ideas about what the heart does, and used its break-through technology and stunning precision to begin to measure every emotion, every meditation, every thought as simply physical actions in the brain. Our deepest emotions are caused by certain neurons firing or certain chemicals being released -- even, it turns out, profound emotions like love and stress and compassion.

Here's another story:

Joel Finkelstein of Stanford told the crowd at the Palm -- this is true -- that he is injecting viruses into the brains of animals and controlling their minds with laser beams. He did not laugh maniacally as he said it. His technique -- called optogenetics -- can be used to send a rat racing in circles whenever researchers turn a light on, controlling the little guy like he's a remote control car.

Along with his Frankensteinian name and the fact that he told me this laser-controlled brain technique could possibly be used in humans, Finkelstein seemed like a mad scientist, albeit an affable one. In his lab, he said, he used the lasers to choke off production in the rat's brain of a certain chemical -- a chemical called dopamine -- and then watched while the dopamine-deprived rat stopped being affectionate toward baby rats.

What does this mean? Finklestein and others cautioned that no single chemical or neuron accounts for any one feeling or behavior; the brain is super complicated. But dopamine does seem to have a lot to do with kindness. And so if we want to increase love, we ought to look seriously at dopamine levels. 

It can be a little unsettling to think of love as a chemical. It can be unsettling to hear your deepest emotions described in such cold terms. Sue Carter of the University of Illinois said that mothers bond with babies because their brains are flooded with another brain chemical -- oxytocin -- mother's love in liquid form. Your mom won't love you if she lacks oxytocin, perhaps, or if you marry that horrible guy you're dating. Jul202012_0130-5

It can be unsettling to hear Yale's Judson Brewer say that, despite everything you think, there is probably no self -- no soul or inner spirit. Where would it be? Your soul is just the collection of neurons you have. It's the story you tell about yourself.

So what does all this mean? To me, this kind of research seems to counter what monks believe, which is that you are only spirit. It seems to hint strongly at the opposite -- that we are all only our chemicals.

Congratulations, your soul just died.

So if we're all only our chemicals, does knowing how the chemicals work help us understand our behaviors? Can it help us be more compassionate -- one goal of the conference?

Possibly. One idea presented was to treat people with oxytocin, the bonding or trust hormone, by pumping it into the water supply. Scientists across the board denounced this idea as a horrendously bad idea. Even Finkelstein was against it. Sarina Saturn from Oregon State, seemed to endorse a lot more hugging, which naturally releases oxytocin. These people were really ineffective mad scientists.

Jul202012_0123-3One other thing: many scientists said they believed in the positive effects of meditation. Studies show it increases a practitioner's ability to pay attention and show sympathy toward sufferers.

In fact, one scientist, North Carolina's Barbara Fredrickson, showed that meditation allows people to better regulate their hearts. That, in turn, helped them deal better with stress. How does she know this? She hooked electronic monitors up to peoples' chests.

Maybe the monks aren't such imbeciles after all. They might even be smarter than morons.


[Pictures by Gerry Efinger)


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