By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
(Jay Levin was the editor of the LA. Weekly in 1979)
AND WHAT IF WE COULD live forever? And cure ourselves at will? Odd as it seems by 2002 we will probably have progressed a long way toward this possibility. The basic information already either exists or is inherent in research being done now; we may be able to live forever because we will have trained our, brains not to let ourselves die.
The brain. The only subject more boring for a dinner conversation than taxes. But watch, because it is the coming subject. What is being discovered now about the brain and how it operates is going to change the way we think, learn and relate to each other. The AMA notwithstanding, it will also change the way we heal ourselves and how we let ourselves age.
A few basics: We are physiological beings; that is, we are grounded in the capacities of our physical bodies. Put aside the question of "spirit" or "soul" for a moment. What we can prove scientifically is that we have physical bodies whose latent talents are awesome and that the brain is the most important part of our bodies. The brain has the physical capacity to acquire new information, form new ideas from it, to think, learn, discover. Perhaps it even has the ability to project itself electro-magnetically in short bursts of energy that end up being called ESP. If there is anything more exciting in the supposed spiritual world than the process of thought and creativity, nobody has suggested yet what it might be.
As complex as the brain is, its fundamental operating system is relatively simple. Information is stored in the cell bodies, in a process still being unraveled by neurobiologists. The information is transferred through a chemical reaction to other cells along cable-like structures. As each individual cell is excited by this chemical reaction, monitors attached to the cell determine whether the information is relevant to the cell and whether the cell ought to release-again by chemical reaction-the information stored in it. Or just pass along the info to other cells.
The combination of cell body, cable and monitor is called a neuron. A neuron is like a single telephone line with its own operator.
If a lot of our cells fired at once---something that happens on a small scale when we see our lives "flash before us" in moments of near death-we would go crazy. But in fact the structure of the brain prevents this. Information is sent along controlled pathways - the neurons - and assembled in a separate part of the brain. Thinkingis really the process of plucking separate bits of information from different cells and assembling that information in a new thought, idea or image.
The brain contains billions of bits of information. Part of that information is about our bodies. A section of the brain-a collection of neurons-handles the function of monitoring the body and sending out signals on how it is to function. Most of this happens on an unconscious level, so the message is never sent to the parts of the brain which handle "consciousness" and will. What does this have to do with illness and aging? Well, what if we could somehow figure out a way to send a message from the conscious part of the brain to the unconscious part to this effect: Stop it! Stop the disease. Repair the damaged cells (a capacity our bodies have to an extraordinary degree). Or send a signal throughout the body to stop whatever electro-chemical process takes place in aging? The structure of the brain permits such a message to be passed along. But so far, we don't know how to transmit such a signal from the conscious section of the brain to the unconscious. We don't know how to fire up the neurons that link them.
Or do we?
Perhaps the most intriguing medical research now taking place involves the process of healing through making people feel good about themselves. As New Yorkmagazine reported two years ago, researchers in New York, Boston and England are getting interesting results from programs designed to improve the psychological states of ill people. This is true with afflictions ranging from colds to cancer. In both Boston and Texas, in fact, there are now hospitals with cancer wards designed to be comfortable, fun places that keep the patients at play-dancing, singing, joking, experiencing joy. The results thus far are scientifically inconclusive but a real pattern of improvement in many patients is emerging.
IS THIS A COINCIDENCE?
Research into psychological states and health goes even further. In England, in-depth studies of the disease patterns of patients andof their families indicates something very curious: Given certain situations in their lives, the patients tend to get ill on schedule. For example, a woman developed cancer two months after her husband left her. Years later the woman's daughter also developed cancer under exactly the same circumstances and after the same time period. Coincidence? The more that researchers study the patterns of family disease, the less coincidental such events appear to be. No, something else may be going on. And one possible explanation is that disease is a learned response to a given stimuli. Just for a moment forget about outside organisms invading the body. Organisms are always there; some of us get sick, some don't. Some astronauts exposed to space radiation developed leukemia; others didn't. Each of our bodies have separate capacities to deal with these things. But consider the possibility that those capacities may be mental rather than physical. What if disease happens this way: Because of some outside stimuli-the breakup of a marriage, for instance–certain brain circuits are either paralyzed by the emotional trauma, preventing them from sending the necessary disease-thwarting signals to the other body cells? Or perhaps they're activated and send along messages that throw the normal workings of these cells out of kilter. If this is possible-and everything we know about the brain suggests it's exactly the way the brain functions–then if that negative signal could be reversed, if another signal could be sent instead, then might not the body be instructed to heal itself?