Sacrifice And Neuropeptides: A Possibility

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Candace Pert, MD, PHD is maybe the most famous neuro-science researcher in the world. She spearheaded some of the now widely accepted science pointing to a direct link between the psychic phenomena of emotional thought and how it is expressed in the body. In the last twenty years her research inspired a slow deep long benevolent tsunami in the fields of Western, Oriental and Complimentary medicines, mind/body practices, meditation, philosophy, spirituality and recovery.

The Holy Grail Found

In the simplest of terms what was discovered was that the brain generates molecules called neuropeptides at the same time as it generates emotional thought. These compounds are like tiny controllers, tiny packs of information that instruct the cells of our body how they should feel, concordant with the mental state. They are physiological instructors, telling the body the basics on how to react.

It is important to note that we are not talking about neuropathic action of the Autonomic Nervous System.  It has been well known for some time that its Sympathetic and Parasympathetic branches provide rather instantaneous physiological changes in the body via the Adrenals and the Vagus Nerve.  And while these are deeply involved, they are the basic on off switches which activate the fright/flight and/or Relaxation Response.

For while these chemicals are needed for life support, their fundamental origin is not in the brain but in the body. What we are talking about today is something outside the conventional neural pathways that provides information to the cells of our bodies about the quality of emotional information and are generated by the brain itself as a cofactor of emotional display. They are instructors of the quality  of sensation and are instructors of feeling: Sad, happy, melancholy, angry, etc.

They are  in-structors and in as much, they can also be emotional de-structors. A case in point:

If the brain expresses anger, whether or not the anger was mistaken, appropriate, inappropriate, drug or alcohol induced, seemingly random or even dreamed, the body’s reaction is the same:  On the first level the Sympathetic goes into action We engage in defensive behavior, heart rate increases and we experience the all too familiar adrenaline rush which can be as addictive as it is distasteful.  None of this is new. Anyone who has done even a small amount of self reflection can grasp that. 

What the newer paradigms offer, however, is the idea that the body is not just the dumb mute expresser of the brains emotions, condemned to execute but is a co partner in creation. The anger does manifest firstly in the body by vehicle of the near instantaneous  transmission of the cranial nerves on the heartbeat and respiration, yes,  but there is also a short lag time in which our anger can either abate or cook up to a seething rage. Familiar?

While there is an instantaneous reflexive reaction upon stimulus that is somewhat similar to the knee/kick reaction the doctor tests our leg reflexes with, there is a longer-lasting, slower-onset part of emotion that follows up this first burst of neurological instinctive activity.   The neuropeptides that turn the cells of our body on to experience the flavor, the savor, the bodily emotion of anger above and beyond the reflex takes time to reach and develop. Why? Because these peptides are actually delivered via the bloodstream which is much slower than the nervous system.  The limbic center of the brain, our emotional control center, lies somewhere in-between the ancient ‘lizard brain’ as it is affectionately sometimes called in recovery circles, and the cerebral cortex, our higher independent thought centers.

The peptides are poured into the bloodstream and take time to reach their destinations. During this time, we are in no-(wo)mans’s land, waiting to follow through on the thought. Amazing. Anyone who has experienced anger, which is all of us, at times must recognize this. There is a lag time where we say to ourselves however fleetingly “yes or no”.  The brain only starts to generate these peptides upon the reflex. The emotional centers of the brain then pitch in and manufacture the predominance of the mayhem making molecules which cook the body, which in turn then sends back its own signals by generating its own neurotransmitters whch are sent back to the brain and realized as an angry body. Mission Acomplished.

Except for a few things: 1) WE WERE MISTAKEN  oofah...and 2) Even if we were right, we most likely are liable to harbor a resentment and 3) We are now in a loop where the Adrenaline Drug can be much more appealing than having to apologize to someone who had the temerity to upset us even if we were wrong. Isn’t being human fun?

This is simply amazing. In my own case, after a short subjective analysis of all of my strongest angry responses, I was very often quite wrong in my assumptions of intentional wrongdoing. What would I have given to not have reacted to some of the most egregious mistakes?  What would I have given to not retain a resentment for a day, a month, a year, a decade? Does some of this sound at all familiar?

There are several things at play here that I would like to talk about but I need to  disclose that I am not a professional scientist, researcher, nor am not an MD. I am a teacher of Qigong, Taoist Internal Alchemy, different aspect of Oriental Medicine,  as well as a conventional businessman entrepreneur of 40 years and in recovery for nearly 18 years.

The Value Of Saintliness

William James’ epoch inspiring book, The Variety Of Religious Experience, dating back to the earliest days of the 20th century took a rational scientific look at what he called the ‘Religious Experience’ and tried to analyze what the notion of cleaving to unseen powers for help and salvation could do for a human that nothing else could. There were several chapters of note and many of them inspired people like Bill Wilson and Alan Watts to name a few. Many call him the father of New Age thinking.  Some of the chapter headings were “Religion and Neurology”,  “The Reality Of The Unseen”, “The Sick Soul”, Convergence, “Mysticism” “Saintliness” and “The Value Of Saintliness”.

I am recollecting the Value Of Saintliness and remembering that some of his descriptions of saintly behavior were frankly, quite odd. He used extreme examples on purpose to illustrate his point, saying that the stronger case is made in exaggerated cases.  There were cases of extreme self denial, acts of courage in the face of disease, war, denial and more. All the while, these people seemed not only to not mind their lot, they seemed to enjoy it. As the saying goes, wassup with that?

Is it possible that their brains generated neuropeptides of calm, of comfort, of equanimity in the face of situations most of us would flee from? Is it possible that they enjoyed humility? Is it possible they thrived on self-denial?

Now, I am not suggesting that any of us take up a life as a 14th century saint. Some of them were very backward, socially inept, most were uneducated and many probably mentally ill. Today many of them might be institutionalized or worse. This is not a value judgment Religiosity. It is an observation. Did their brains generate molecular compounds assuring their bodies that they were safe, cared for, secure and loved while engaging in sacrifice?

Has it ever happened that we wanted to act out, wanted to get angry, held our tongue, held our reactions, and then later saw we were wrong all along and never lost it? How does that make us feel? Have we ever wanted to act out even if we were right and did not exact our due?

The Chinese Book Of Changes, The I Ching uses the phrase several times ‘Being On A Horse Not Advancing’. This does not mean hubris as in our usual  "High Horse" image but quite the contrary.  This means being in a position of power, of being right, of having the potential to act, being able to trample and win, but refraining from doing so.

People in recovery, people who volunteer in prisons, who are hospice volunteers, who give of themselves relive on a daily basis part of the most frightening times of their lives. On the outside, others might say that this person is so brave, is so good, is so humble that they donate their time bodies and minds in the service of others.

The Dali Lama is quoted as saying he chooses to be optimistic because it feels better.

I would suggest that people in Recovery from any illness, physical or mental, people who charitably give beyond normal means, people who listen to others give of themselves because it releases neuropeptides like oxytocin. It makes them feel better.

If I can learn to wait after being ‘insulted’, if I can turn the other cheek as I feel the anger and know that I will in a short time generate positive neuropeptides to help I will truly understand that Sacrifice is revealed when the pain has stopped.

©Daniel Weicher 2017

Researchers in the Netherlands provide first-time evidence for a neurobiological cause of intergroup conflict. They show that oxytocin, a neuropeptide produced in the brain that functions as hormone and neurotransmitter, leads humans to self-sacrifice to benefit their own group and to show aggression against threatening out-groups. This finding qualifies the wide-spread belief that oxytocin promotes general trust and benevolence.