Saturday, December 14, 2013

Serotonin and the mind-body connection

Painting by William Adie

This recent article about the connection between gut bacteria and autism in mice may seem to have nothing whatsoever to do with spiritual work, but it actually has a great deal to do with it. I'll try to explain that.

Readers will recall that Gurdjieff, like Swedenborg, insisted that spiritual manifestations were fundamentally physical in nature. They both made a very great deal of the relationship between the structure of the human body, its chemistry, and mankind's spiritual states. Nothing takes place without a medium through which it can operate; Swedenborg understood that this medium was the body and nervous system in human beings, and that complex chemistries governed it; and Gurdjieff documented it at some length in Ouspensky's In Search of the Miraculous. (He indicated, in fact, that we ought to try and understand it.) Swedenborg actually went even further than Gurdjieff in explaining these facts, but his expositions on physiology and spirituality are sophisticated and very challenging unless one invests much time understanding them.

In order to understand why the balances of bacteria in our gut have such a profound effect on our psychology, it's necessary to understand that the majority of the serotonin receptors in the human body are found in the gut (see the link.) Serotonin, which is one of Gurdjieff's higher hydrogens, is also an intimate part of the platelet system in the human bloodstream, as well as the central nervous system. It's well known that selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors have a profound effect on depression; and the famous psychedelic compound LSD binds to serotonin receptors (see the section of pharmacodynamics.)

So we know for certain that the action of serotonin has a direct and major affect on the psychological well-being of human beings, as well as inducing radical enhancement of neurological experiences. giving rise to altered states which reveal extraordinary nuances of color and movement, and triggering synesthesia experiences that connect external neural stimuli with one another in remarkable ways — all reminiscent of Swedenborg's descriptions of heaven. Indeed, anyone who has taken LSD or sister drugs will tell you it is a very memorable experience.

 The reason that all of this takes place is that serotonin serves as a major chemical mediator for the mind/body connection. This is why so much of it is found in the gut and in the bloodstream. When the mind-body connection is functioning properly, emotional well-being is enhanced; the deeper the connection between the body and the mind, the more stable the emotional state comes, because serotonin balances are correctly regulated between the two minds, or brains, within the body — the intellectual brain and the physical brain.

To explain it in more clinical terms, the permanent connection with sensation, described by Jeanne de Salzmann as a definite aim of inner work, involves the corrected regulation of the serotonin system in the body. There's a threshold moment at which this system becomes active and overcomes the disruptions that a lifetime of improper regulation create. At that time the bloodstream itself, as well as the rest of the body, begins to acquire sensation in an active manner. This is, in esoteric systems, referred to as the awakening of the mind of the body, but the phenomenon is not properly understood or well-known outside of the relatively small number of individuals who have either experienced it directly or at least heard about it through teachings in the Gurdjieff work. Much of the Asian interest in the energy of the hara or tanden also has its roots in this question.

 The reason that bacteria have such a major impact on our psychological state is that their secretions can have supremely disruptive effects on both serotonin balances and uptake in the gut. Apparently tiny amounts of such substances can have highly disruptive effects; take a look, for example, at the fact that 100-200 micrograms of LSD will drastically alter a subject's perceptions. In other instances, equally tiny amounts of a poison may kill a person.

The right bacteria enhance serotonin balances; the wrong ones can destroy it; unaware of their actions because of levels and scale, we live with the consequences.

 In my earlier post invisible (December 11) I took note of the intricate connections between the microcosmos and the macrocosmos; and my science blog The Microbial Octave attempts to bring more mundane questions about the microsphere into focus.

The whole subject raises questions about the contribution microorganisms make to our spiritual development. In the worlds of shamanism, human beings are often assigned animal guides or assistants, totems that help them to navigate difficult temporal and spiritual territory.

It turns out that the idea has an absolute basis in scientific fact, at least at the bacterial level.


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