(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. Thinking is 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 York magazine 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 and of 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 instancecertain 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 functionsthen if that negative signal could be reversed, if another signal could be sent instead, then might not the body be instructed to heal itself?
The problem is how do you send such a signal along your brain paths? How do you fire up the neurons that link your conscious desire to heal yourself with the part of your brain that controls body functions? One-way may be to make the patient feel good, which in terms of the brain would turn off a negative set of neurons bearing self-damaging information and turn on a neurons with healing information. Another way might be to analyze the disease pattern. The thought process might then fire a set of neurons that were ultimately linked to those neurons controlling the illness.
Three years Ago a friend of mine who is in a very special therapy program came down with a severe ease of Russian flu during a period of severe epidemic. Her temperature quickly soared to almost 105; she was very sick. The doctor who examined her told her she might have to be hospitalized. Rather than panic, she did an interesting thing: she enclosed herself in her room for a half hour, calmed herself, and through intense concentration tried to recall her childhood disease pattern and that of her family. As memories flooded back, she instructed herself that she didn't have to respond to the remembered situations by getting ill. She had the capacity to behave in another manner. In effect, she, used the conscious part of her brain to build a pathway to an unconscious section. By the process of thought, she fired up a different neural circuitry.
After the half hour she emerged from the room. Her fever was gone; she no longer felt nauseous; her body had stopped aching. She had, in effect, cured herself.
Then there's biofeedback, a research technique that is quickly becoming a medical phenomenon. Subjects are hooked up to equipment that monitors various body responses: pulse, salinization, brain waves, etc. As with a lie detector, the responses can be viewed on charts or screens. Biofeedback is the process (if trying to control one's own bodily responses by mentally trying to control the images or lines on the screen.
In just a few years, of biofeedback experimentation, researchers have already done amazing things: taught heart disease patients to control their heartbeats, helped alleviate tensions associated with ulcers, and opened up the possibility of healing innumerable bodily ailments through biofeedback concentration techniques.
All this from watching a screen and trying to control the lines on it?
Why not? The ability of the brain to fire up circuits allowing various brain sections to communicate only requires some sort of informational flow. Some data to trigger the neurochemical responses. The process of trying to control an image on a screen is just such an informational flow. In computer terms, it's a new program. What we can't do directly because we haven't learned bow to, we can do indirectly. In this case, fire-up bridging neural circuits using the information provided by viewing the screen.
FAITH HEALING TOO?
And what about faith healing? Anyone who's ever seen Ernest Angley on television on Sunday nights knows that so many people suddenly getting better before our eyes can't be faked. Real healing is taking place ... and it may just be that faith is the informational medium, just as the screen is the medium in biofeedback or my friend's analytical therapy was the medium for her. In high-emotional states, the brain circuitry with which , we do our everyday business can suddenly be overwhelmed as other sections of the brain fire their informational storehouses. New neuron pathways open up. So it may not be surprising that ill or disabled people who approach Angley in an emotional state and are touched by him, suddenly can walk or straighten their limbs. Angley has imparted to them a powerful piece of information-that they can walk-and as long as they believe it, that information ripples through the brain, firing up associative informational cells, until a path is formed to the part of the brain that sends the body the key signalwalk. And the, process takes a fraction of a second.
Everything we are learning about the brain tells us one thing: we are what we learn. We are our information. Politically, socially, morally, the impact of that reality will be staggering. Every person is what they know. Change the information and you change the person. The more you contemplate that notion, the clearer it becomes how ludicrous it is to judge a person by who they are rather than try to understand how they got that way. If you change the information, you change 'the person.
With life and health, it may just be the same. By 2002, out of biofeedback, analytical techniques, meditation techniques, even a study of the process of faith healing, we should be well on our way to developing programs which will teach us how to manipulate those parts of the brain which control our health and our life. And more: we may have learned new educational processes that will tap latent brain capacities -fire up new circuitry- that we have no glimmer of now. (As is, we only use 10 percent of our brains.)
Everything we know from brain research suggests this is possible. And it certainly makes for a future more full of magic and splendor than any conceived of by the high tech engineers or the psychics. Or by the spacemen watching for UFOs. You could spend a few interesting centuries exploring the potential of the brain, and you may get a chance to.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.