“Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison [the illusion of space and time] by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.” – Albert Einstein
Our Sense of Time
The human brain is the most amazing data-processing system yet discovered. In comparison, the most powerful computers yet built are simpler than the simplest single-celled biological organism.
Digital computers encode signal inputs and outputs as bits (strings of 0s and 1s) and process information by electronic on/off switches that manipulate the bits.
In addition, computers have a built-in clock that synchronizes their data-processing operations. While this approach is a working basis of many of our technologies, it is utterly inadequate for carrying out the sort of complex mental tasks that our brains process and that we take for granted. For example, our visual recognition of a face in a crowd is a task we can accomplish without a moment’s hesitation, but computers find it incredibly difficult.
The reason is that our brains comprise a dynamic matrix of some one hundred billion neurons—nerve cells that, like computers, operate electrically. But instead of just acting digitally on or off, they behave in a so-called analog way and are able to respond to inputs and produce output voltages across a range of signal strengths.
Also, we have seen that, unlike computers, there is no inner clock in our brains. Our perceptions of events are accumulated from an ongoing variety of sense-based inputs from our environment. These arrive in a time frame of a few milliseconds; and it is only when they cumulatively pass an energy threshold that a given neuron sends an output signal, whose firing correlates with our becoming aware of the event. Again unlike computers, which are constructed with fixed hardware and programmed software, our neurons are highly plastic.
Neural channels—the connections between neurons—are constantly changing and adapting through interactions with what is perceived as reality. And although for many years neuroscientists believed that when neurons die through aging, disease, or trauma they’re not replaced, as we have noted, this has been shown not to be the case. Through a process called neurogenesis, new neurons are created throughout our lifetime and especially as a result of intensely felt experiences.
The energetic imprints of our experiences encode not only their physical attributes but how we think and feel about them. In fact, it’s our thoughts and emotions about the events of our lives that are their most vivid and long-lasting aspects. Even when we no longer consciously remember a specific event, its related emotions may continue to reside in our subconscious memory. Contributing to our patterns of habitual response, the hopes, fears, anger, regret, and myriad other feelings are aspects of the shadowy terrain from which our “sunlit” waking awareness emerges.
Our brains are continually processing a vast amount of environmental impressions that we initially respond to unconsciously. An enormous majority of these remain unconscious, for only when they are energetically strong enough do they cross the threshold of our conscious awareness. The apparent continuity of our conscious impressions is illusory, because without an inner “clock” our perceptions lag behind the multitude of stimuli, which we are continually bathed in and interact with.
The neural processes that respond to such impressions take around a quarter of a second to accumulate and form into a conscious experience—this is due to different attributes of stimuli, such as their color, shape, and texture. Although they occur simultaneously, they are registered by our brains at different times.
In our everyday awareness, this overlapping of impressions becomes a coherent whole, and we experience our waking consciousness as a unified flow. This is how our sense of the flow of time is formed. The emotional and mental contents that enrich our experiences manipulate our sense of time, ratcheting it up to “fast-forward” or reducing it to slow motion. Traumatic events appear to slow down or even stop time, whereas when we are enjoying ourselves, “time flies.”
Mind over Matter
Such different perceptions of the same reality are an everyday occurrence. But we are rarely aware of just how much our believing or disbelieving affects what we actually “see.” Generally, our ego-selves are culturally conditioned. As a consequence, we not only act in accordance with our prevailing worldview and beliefs, but our identification is so powerful that we are literally unable to see what we cannot imagine.
When we’re able to imagine something, we create an image of it that we can relate to. Without such relationship, there is no resonance, and so we have no energetic and informational means of attuning ourselves to a new phenomenon. When we can imagine a phenomenon and believe in its reality, we can actually experience that reality.
For millennia, the meditative techniques of spiritual traditions have taught their initiates how to embody greater well-being by attuning their minds and emotions more harmoniously. Additionally, they have shown how the attuned power of our mind can overcome physical pain. Tibetan monks, for example, have long been tutored in visualization exercises that enable them to slow or increase their heart rates and alter their body temperatures at will.
Such exercises, over many years, allow them to focus their mind so coherently that there are well-documented cases of overnight snowbound vigils held by monks who melted the snow around them through their body heat alone. Although we may not have their fortitude or training, our beliefs, too, are not only capable of altering our biology but do so all the time.
What is the process that enables our thoughts and feelings to have such power over our bodies? In the last chapter, we introduced biologist Bruce Lipton’s model of cellular membranes as organic information processors that are dynamically linked to the environment. The receptor molecules that are embedded within the membranes resonate and interrelate with specific environmental stimuli, both physical and informational. Their responses are the triggers that organize the behavior and the internal condition of the cell.
But, as Lipton points out, the stimuli that trigger cell activity may be distorted; thus, they rather represent our beliefs about reality. And so environmental signals such as our feelings and thoughts—even, and often especially, when they are subconscious—affect the behavior and thus the health of the cell whether or not they reflect a “real” view of the world.
As biochemist David Hamilton shows in his book It’s the Thought That Counts, the attunement of our conscious and subliminal thoughts and emotions—both of which express our beliefs about ourselves and the wider world—powerfully affect the health of our bodies and our overall well-being at the level of every cell of our body.
The Placebo Effect
One significant way our beliefs and expectations affect our biology is in the so-called placebo effect.
This was first discovered during pharmaceutical drug trials in the 1950s in which the effect of a new drug was tested by comparing its performance against a dummy medication, or placebo, administered to patients suffering from a given condition.
Over many studies, it has been found that on average about a third of patients who are given the placebo feel better. In fact, a number of studies have shown that individuals suffering from mild depression respond to placebos as well as they do to antidepressant drugs—and without any adverse side effects.
For a long time, doctors tended to assume that the mechanism of placebo response is psychological. Researchers at the University of Michigan tested this assumption by scanning the brain activity of healthy volunteers whose jaws had been injected with salt water, causing painful pressure. The volunteers were then told they would receive a new pain-relieving drug when in fact they were given a placebo. The scans showed that their brains responded to their belief in the placebo by releasing endorphins—natural painkilling chemicals that block the pain signals between nerve cells—and as these coursed through their bodies, the volunteers felt better.
The scale of the placebo effect may in fact be increasing. In 1999, in an article for Science magazine, Martin Enserink reported that tests for drugs to alleviate obsessive-compulsive disorder disclosed that for over 15 years, the proportion of placebo responses had grown from virtually nil to where some trials failed—in all likelihood, due to the high level of placebo response. The year before, in a meta-analysis of 19 antidepressant drug trials, psychologists Irving Kirsch and Guy Sapirstein showed that the proposed drugs relied on the placebo effect for three-quarters of their effectiveness.
The power and potential for intentional healing of the placebo effect is finally being recognized – although unsurprisingly, not by drug companies. What it appears to depend on is a person wanting to be healed and his or her expectancy that the treatment will be effective.
One of the pioneering researchers of the intimate connections between our minds, emotions, and bodies is psychopharmacologist Candace Pert, author of Molecules of Emotion. In the early 1970s, biologists were trying to understand how mind- and mood-altering opiates such as morphine worked. Theorizing that such drugs interact with the brain’s cellular receptors, Pert, with her colleague Sol Snyder, discovered the existence of such a receptor.
The discovery opened the door to the realization that if our bodies have such receptors, then we must also have a natural feel-good opiate within us. Subsequently identified by neuroscientists John Hughes and Hans Kosterlitz in 1975, this turned out to be a molecule called endorphin that was found to be released in large quantities through physical exercise, among other things—and also by eating chocolate!
Endorphins are one type of so-called neuropeptides that are produced by emotions and in turn produce them through our continuous flow of experience. Involved in an enormous range of bodily functions from the management of pain to the release of hormones, neuropeptides and the cellular receptors they interact with form a psychosomatic and dynamic matrix operating through our thoughts, emotions, and bodies.
Heart and Mind
For most of us for most of the time, our thoughts and emotions relate to our ego-based, personal, sense of self. The innate separation from others that such a sense of separate self engenders is the basis for the word selfish. When we are unable to go beyond its inherent limitations, we feel lonely and cut off, as indeed we are when seeing the world solely from its narrow perspective.
When our egos are too dominant or, conversely, too fragile, such apparent separation is often accompanied by difficulty in empathizing with the wider world. It is this deep sense of separation, loss, and loneliness that many psychologists feel is at the root of an exponential increase in depression in the last few years. And it’s the negative emotions that are generated by the separations and fears of our ego-mind that lie at the root of so many of the schisms that have divided people from each other. Conversely, the positive feelings of pleasure, joy, and love arise not in the mind but are generated by our heart. These feelings have the capacity to connect us at ever-expanding levels of awareness with the whole-world.
We have seen how our entire body is a coherent energy-information system. This also comes to the forefront in the findings that intelligence and attention are not mediated through the brain. For, as research shows, the heart is able to perceive and has inherent intelligence.
In the 1970s, physiologists John and Beatrice Lacey found that not only are signals sent from our brain to our heart, which the heart considers but does not necessarily follow, but that our heart also sends signals to our brain, which the latter does obey. Subsequently, it has been discovered that the heart has its own nervous system comprising at least 40,000 nerve cells (neurons)—as many as are found in various subcortical centers of the brain. Leading on from this, a two-way biocommunication system of thoughts and feelings is now recognized to operate between the heart and the brain.
Since 1991, stress researcher Doc Childre and his colleagues at the HeartMath Institute in California have undertaken research to demonstrate how negative emotions such as insecurity, anger, and fear throw the body’s nervous system out of balance and engender heart rhythms that are jagged and disordered. Conversely, they have found that positive emotions of love, compassion, and gratitude create coherent energy signals that increase order, reduce stress, and bring balance throughout the nervous system. They are reflected in harmonious rhythms of the heart.
Our hearts generate the strongest electromagnetic field produced by our body—a field that, as the HeartMath team has demonstrated, is measurable a number of feet away by magnetic and electrostatic detectors.
The Power of Positive Emotions
One of the challenges facing researchers studying human behavior outside the laboratory in “real life” situations is to reduce the number of variables that are needed to be taken into consideration to come up with evidence in a particular case. A project to see whether positive emotions are conducive to living longer was able to do this when it investigated the longevity of a group of 180 nuns living the same ordered life away from the distractions and stresses of the world outside the convent walls.
Published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychiatry in 2001, the analysis of the positive words used throughout their diaries revealed that the nuns with the most positive outlook, and who felt more positive emotionally, were not only happier than their sisters but lived significantly longer lives. It does make a difference both to our state of well-being and how long we will live to enjoy our lives.
French golfer Jean Van de Velde was leading the 1999 field at the Carnoustie, Scotland, Open Championship when he hit a critical shot into the water during the play-off and went from leader to runner-up. When asked in 2007 when the Open returned to Carnoustie how he had felt, Van de Velde replied, “I see the world as a glass half full, preferably of wine. And all the better when I’ve already drunk the first half.” Well said!
In 1996, psychologist Daniel Goleman reviewed the significance of the heart in the way that we perceive and interact with the world. He noted that the measurement of human IQ, which reflects the quotient of intellectual and cognitive abilities, does not change significantly from childhood onward regardless of our educational opportunities and attainment.
Goleman found that success in life, as reflected in measures of perceived well-being, appears to depend significantly less on IQ and more on our ability to manage and develop our emotional intelligence. He termed the relevant measure EQ: emotional intelligence quotient. EQ relates to self-awareness and our ability to perceive the interrelationship between our thoughts, emotions, and actions and their consequences on others. Unlike our IQ, our EQ can continue to be educated and indeed reeducated throughout our life.
Fear is often seen as a negative emotion. It’s healthy, however, when it enables us to be aware of the danger of an imminent threat and allows us to take appropriate action. The problem arises when we make a habit out of being fearful, for when we feel fear, our bodies literally contract. Biologically, we shut down all nonessential processes in order to focus on the archaic evolutionary choice of fight or flight.
When the danger is past, we relax and our bodies return to a balanced state. But when our fears become chronic, that biological rebalancing cannot occur; instead, our continuing level of fearful thoughts and emotions hold us tightly in the grip of fight-or-flight stress. This inevitably limits our behavior, for as Candace Pert has written: “You can’t grasp new information in a state of fear . . . punishment and threats actually inhibit the learning process.”
Chronic fears often arise in childhood. And by the time we are adults, they have become part of our worldview. When we’re able to be aware of such fears—to acknowledge their limitations and, if needed, seek the help of others to overcome them—our lives can be transformed. When we exchange the resentment, frustration, anger, and pain of such fears for compassion, joy, and gratitude, we literally become another person. This transformation is not only possible but can be experienced by everyone who is willing to try.
Sometimes words are inadequate to express what we really mean or feel, but the English language is remarkable in its inclusion of simple words that can themselves hold a deeper meaning. For example, each of us may have a different definition of the word evil. But when we realize that it is the word live spelled backward, we can perhaps see a meaning that hasn’t occurred to us before: Evil is the opposite of live. To undertake an evil act is then an act of death. And the word love, itself carrying so much association, is only a single letter different from the word live. As evil is death, so love is life.
The stress and depression that accompanies emotional and mental trauma are reinforced and worsened if we continue to solely focus on our ego-based perceptions of ourselves. The age-old adage to “live, love, and laugh” is probably the simplest and most profound self-help advice there is. No matter how it is wrapped up in sophisticated language, leading-edge science and consciousness studies agree that:
to live physically, mentally, and emotionally active lives, to love—in action through service to others – and to laugh – preferably at yourself – is the most effective, and yet sometimes the most challenging, way to wholeness and health.
It’s important for us to appreciate that our emotions and thoughts are energetic patterns that embody awareness, and their reorganization can inhibit or restore health. Our feelings and beliefs about ourselves and the world are crucial. Their limitations are our limitations; their possibilities are our possibilities.
We can no longer separate our thoughts and emotions from our physical well-being.
This excerpt is taken from the book CosMos: A Co-creator’s Guide to the Whole-World by Ervin Laszlo and Jude Currivan. It is published by Hay House (August 2008) and is available at all bookstores or online at: www.hayhouse.com.
Available also at amazon: CosMos: A Co-creator’s Guide to the Whole-World
It will look like this: Live, Love, and Laugh – The Most Profound Self-Help Advice