Sharon Begley’s science column on Fridays in the Wall Street Journal is a constant delight. She frequently illuminates research that has profound implications for the future of human identity and behavior, often derived from biology or physics.
Biology, of course, is displacing computer technology as the sexy domain for mind-boggling inquiry. Several years ago I asked some technophiles at Def Con, the annual computer security conference, when we realized that information security was turning into risk management and box-checking compliance, what was next for unconventional techno-adventurers. They suggested “animal mods,” the alteration of our bodies with surgical implants, tattoos, and the like to make us resemble other species. The changes they discussed, however, were mostly cosmetic.
A few weeks ago, an email arrived from “a well known crank in a good position to know” who said this of MIT:
“The future is biology. Media Lab is dead. Weisner is dead. Dertouzos is dead. CS enrollment is falling fast. The new President is (1) female and (2) from neuroscience. NIH is the biggest funding source, not DoD, not NSF.”
In a recent short story I depict hackers who play with genes instead of computer networks. Gibby, the hero, gets rich by distributing “alter-genies,” open source kits that enable “code kiddiez” to create syntho-life in their basements. He makes money by selling the wrap-around digital environments that enhanced humans will use to enjoy newly-engineered sexual experiences.
That short story was barely ahead of life. If science fiction is the way a left-brain society dreams of the future, the dream came moments before I awakened to the Discovery DNA Explorer Kit for kids ten and older, an astonishingly useful tool available for only US$80. And in this month’s Wired, we are told that “the era of garage biology is upon us.”
Then Begley’s column on April 22 discussed studies indicating that the effect of a gene depends on the environment in which it is expressed. Tanks with and without fish elicit different traits in water fleas with the same DNA. Tanks with fish elicit the growth of armor in the form of helmets; tanks without fish do not.
Humans, too: not helmets, which our genes do not express, but plenty of other things.
Studies show, Begley wrote, that a gene associated with depression and suicide is likely to be expressed only in the presence of stressful events. A particular gene affecting cholesterol levels is likely to be expressed only if someone eats a diet high in fat. And rats (who are a lot like humans) do not express a gene for fretful neurotic behavior when their mothers nurture them a lot.
In short, the environment alters how genes are expressed as traits or behaviors. Our responses to life are not fixed and rigid but are characterized by plasticity. Genes define a wide range of options but are expressed only in relationship to specific stimuli. The potential becomes actual in response to specific triggers.
Now, let’s take the implications of this a little further. How do genes respond to conscious intentions? Probably the way the unconscious responds. Our unconscious minds do not distinguish inner and outer stimuli, do not separate what we think from what happens in the environment. It only knows what the machinery of perception delivers as an event, whether a mental event or a physical one, it’s all translated into chemical information and the unconscious responds as if it is “real.”
Some people spend a lot of time in therapy because they feel as guilty thinking of doing something as they do doing it. The unconscious does not distinguish a thought from an action.
This suggests that genes – which interface with the “self” at the unconscious level in a region we do not know how to describe – can be triggered by conscious intentions just as they are triggered by external realities. If water fleas had the consciousness of a yogi, they would be able to grow protective helmets even when fish were absent.
The implication is that we humans have the capacity to bootstrap ourselves into desired states of being by naming them and acting on them, so long as those states of being do not lie outside the possibilities latent in our genetic code. We can not grow wings and fly just by wishing we could, we can not dance in the air a la Castaneda’s Don Juan. But we can do more – so much more – than we generally think we can.
Much of what we choose to express in our lives is a function of our deepest intentions. The intentions have to be deep, however. This is not magic or wishful thinking. This is the exercise of freedom and power intrinsic to our humanity at the deepest possible level.
One of Begley’s earlier columns discussed how the intentional focus of a human being affects the brain, its neuroplastic ability to grow particular neurons in support of skills we choose to learn. Fingertips become more sensitive, for example, when we learn Braille.
But we have to pay attention. Monkeys stimulated on their arms grew neurons that made the area more sensitive unless they were distracted while being stimulated. Then, despite the stimulus, neurons did not grow.
Focusing awareness by a conscious act of intention makes things happen.
I think of stories told by a Viet Nam POW, how he and his fellow prisoners learned in isolation to be fluent in a language of tapped code, how they used their imaginations to replay life situations. One POW was a golfer who played a particular course in his head stroke by stroke. When he returned home, he had cut his handicap in half. The same happens when we practice the piano in our heads. The unconscious does not distinguish between “real” and “imaginary” piano playing. Our playing improves either way.
This is true for many of the abilities we have shut off behind a curtain by believing “that’s not me.” Self-definition limits the ability of our genes to come fully into play. This is also why no one can take away our power except by convincing us that we don’t have it so we never use it.
One friend recalls, for example, how his blind mentor at MIT trained himself to play audio tapes at accelerated speeds, reducing the time needed to understand an hour lecture to fifteen minutes. He also trained himself to listen to many conversations simultaneously and left faculty parties up-to-date with everyone’s research.
The ability to do that, latent and unexpressed within his field of genetically determined possibilities, was triggered not by his blindness but by his response to his blindness. Our real desires, if we genuinely intend to express them and they are within our genetic range, will be expressed. This is what it means, not to be supra-human, but to be human.
Now, Sharon Begley is a journalist who writes about science. She insists on evidence from scientific studies. “Consciousness,” she writes, “ is only now becoming a respectable subject of neuroscientific inquiry.” So I accept sole responsibility for this assertion, based on the evidence of a lifetime: spirituality is a domain of human experience that matters profoundly regardless of whether or not scientific research addresses it. It is nice when experiments support the value of meditation, the potency of prayer or the reality of non-local consciousness – it makes them more “real” in our materialistic world – but we don’t need experiments to know what we experience. The freedom and power we experience in the most real moments of our lives are self-validating.
A psychiatrist noticed that while some people transcend oppressive conditions in life, others are crushed by similar circumstances. He discovered that (1) at critical moments, someone had intervened positively in the lives of the former group and (2) they all read a great deal.
Interesting, isn’t it? Someone acted in a positive way at a crucial time AND they used imagination to transcend the physical and emotional constraints of their lives.
Spirituality is a metaphorical way of speaking about how consciousness works, how human life works best. “Spiritual tools” regardless of the traditions in which they are embedded are practices that create attitudes, attributes, and abilities that would otherwise not be elicited or called forth in our lives. “Spiritual discipline” is the use of those tools, practice of the practice. No religious tradition has a corner on the market but it is apparent that for many a religious narrative fused with a particular community is a kind of meta-tool that facilitates the use of all of the other tools. Belief in a naive way in the face value of the story lets one meditate or pray or act in a straight up way, as the tradition defines it. Otherwise you have to kind of talk yourself into using the tools, you come at them as it were through the back door. But clearly that works too. Spiritual tools are mean for eliciting self-transcendence which would otherwise remain latent and unexpressed in our genetic programs.
Whether formal or informal, we need some kind of community life with its loops of feedback and accountability to sustain ourselves on a spiritual path, a path of ongoing transformation. Others help us remember what we decided to practice and how. Once we have internalized the practice and made it habitual, use of the tools is reflexive. Then we transcend the boundaries of any community that must be defined by identifying labels or beliefs, we find community on the fly, as it comes, no longer requiring a secret handshake to ensure the bona fides of companions, knowing that any encounter is an opportunity for life-giving information or energy to flow.
For now, we limit community to our planet, our species. I don’t think that will be true at the end of this century.
The transformational process by which we bootstrap ourselves seems to be hardwired in our genes like the ability of water fleas to grow helmets. But it is not triggered unless something names it, trains it, and sustains it. I am suggesting that this might be something in the environment or it might be something in ourselves; the distinction is ultimately arbitrary.
Freedom can be defined in this context as the willingness to express the fullest range of our potential by choosing the situations that make it more likely that our best capabilities will be triggered. We do that by tending and nurturing probabilities, putting ourselves into situations that makes it more likely that we will be triggered the ways we want. Like creativity, we can’t control the process, but we can cultivate the circumstances in which it is likely to flower.
So attitudes and beliefs do matter. Our lives really are self-fulfilling prophecies.
The identity of organisms, human and other, is a hacker’s paradise of the twenty-first century. At first the varieties of human experience we invent will seem astonishing. Then they will become as commonplace as nuclear energy, as ho hum as colonizing the solar system. No doubt our designer progeny, looking to our monochromatic eyes like the colors of a rainbow, will consider us quaint, stuck as we seem to be in thinking that our lives are given, our options settled once and for all, our identities fixed like a photograph dripping in a dark room rather than a fluid digital canvas onto which to paint with a billion colors.