Our brain is the administration or control centre for conscious, unconscious and automatic life processes. All of us have not one, but, in effect, three brains — in consonance with our evolutionary ‘construct’ — the ‘logical’ brain, the ‘heart’ brain and the ‘gut’ brain.
Our brain abounds with neuropeptides. In medical pioneer Candace Pert’s turn of phrase, neuropeptides are our ‘molecules of emotion.’ Her groundbreaking book, on the subject, Molecules of Emotion, is a must-read for anyone interested in exploring the fascinating world of neuropeptides and their equally fascinating role in everyday life. Be that as it may, neuropeptides don’t just ‘reside’ in the brain. Every cell in our body is ‘enveloped’ with receptors that relentlessly ‘tap’ them, while relaying their ‘messenger molecules’ to communicate or exchange information with the brain — like text messages on your mobile phone.
In Pert’s words, “If the cell is the engine that drives all life, the receptors are the buttons on the control panel of that engine — a specific peptide is the finger that pushes that button and gets things started.” This includes emotions, such as falling in love, or even getting ill. She adds, “Neuropeptides and their receptors are [also] the substrates of our emotions, and they are in constant communication with the immune system, the mechanism through which health and disease are created.” To pick another paradigm. While neuropeptides in the gut regulate the flow of food by altering the tempo of intestinal contractions, their levels increase to protect the immune system — the body’s ‘vanguard’ of defence against illness — in the wake of stress. In simple terms, neuropeptides have a positive effect on the body. They alert us to health problems, even before we fall sick. It is, therefore, no surprise that they have been hailed, by researchers, as our body’s ‘sixth sense.’
On a different plane, studies suggest that emotional bonding in the early months of life ‘activates’ certain processes in the brain. This encompasses sensitive responses to others’ thoughts, interactions and also feelings of pleasure and beauty — not to speak of corporeal or sensuous experience. You’d, perforce, relate our brain’s myriad attributes to what Swedish writer Göran Sonnevi expounds in his book of captivating verse, Mozart’s Third Brain — a meditation on everything, including politics, current affairs, maths, love, ethics, music, philosophy and nature.
New research holds endless, exciting possibilities — especially in the area of mind-body, brain and neurological sciences and their interconnected convergence. This is keyed to divulge a whole deal more than we, perhaps, know, at present, about a host of subtle elements, such as individual susceptibility to illness and our response to medical treatment, aside from our disposition or temperament at both the conscious and subconscious levels.
It is already well surmised how certain states, such as old age, loneliness, stress, grief, hopelessness and angst can undermine our immune system, leaving us vulnerable to illness— such as heart disease and diabetes, among others — and, also early death. Research has also established the existence of chemical pathways linking brain activity to physiological or functional processes in the body — including the role the chemicals, adrenaline and cortisol, perform under stress, juxtaposed by the shortfall of antibodies, the body’s ‘best’ defence against illness or disease. Many common illnesses affect the mind and also body. While inflammation, hormone imbalance or nutritional deficiencies, for instance, can cause depression, a simple lack of fluids, or water, or iron, can impair our ability to learn, remember and strategise.
Wellness is not just ‘in the mind.’ It embraces the multifaceted idea that the mind is not just confined to the brain, but to our body just as well. Picture this. Our disposition is as much psychological as it is physiological, because, any which way you look at it, both our brain and body epitomise their fundamental principles, or purpose, in everything we do, or don’t do. You may well ask whether this is genetic, or whether we adapt or learn to be what we are. In a study, a group of people were asked to identify, or rate, their levels of wellness. Results suggested that people with high scores on their bodily health and emotional wellness graph reported that they had a happy childhood, or upbringing, and felt self-assured and self-confident. They also said that their families, friends and others ‘thought well of them’ and that ‘their life was well under control.’ The inference is obvious. It is not just that people brought up happily ‘synthesise’ their bright attitudes and learn to be happy. The fact also is the two pointers are decisive — one reason why the fast expanding area of wellness is delineating how health and happiness, placed at the core of our being, symbolise physical and emotional wellness.
What about the biological basis of health and wellness? This relates to how positive feelings augment ‘action’ in our brain. Think of this — when your employer offers you a handsome incentive for a job well done, your brain ‘jump-starts’ to work in full-throttle — with renewed gusto. Besides, there is something that all of us could easily relate to — the hypnotic, albeit mystified, manner in which babies ‘fix their eyes,’ on their mom and produce a mesmerising smile. In behavioural terms, it corresponds to one’s psychological accelerator. What does this connote? That we are fashioned by how our brains work and how our body responds — with our own unique, individual signature.
All of us, in like manner, react or respond differently to life’s innumerable demands. We also express our feelings differently — depending upon our genetic, body and brain chemistry. Genes, of course, ‘chart’ our personality, all right, but what separates the ‘chaff’ from the ‘grain’ is our individualistic mode of coping with illness, or disease. This is as distinctive as our fingerprint. Put simply, it is unique. Because, how each of us thinks, feels, emotes, or learns, represents distinct physical and emotional responses — in health and disease.
To cull an example — research shows it is not just our emotions that quiver, but also how our white blood cells [WBCs], or ‘soldiers of health,’ key residents of the body’s immune system, undergo ‘fractional paralysis’ when we experience emotional trauma — following the death of a loved one. This is referred to as the ‘broken-heart syndrome,’ in common parlance, although the bodily distress is more than what meets the eye and mind.
What does this signify? An emotional upheaval, or a physical illness, to highlight a medical axiom, affects our body just as much as our mind or psyche. Healing, likewise, restores balance and brings about accord. This is not poetic allegory. It has overt and covert biological notations — a functional symphony that orchestrates our body’s chemistry with the physics of consciousness.