Selected Poetry: 1974-
THE TRANSCENDENTAL SIGNIFICANCE
Paul Seifert, M.D.
Presented at the Kalman Auditorium, Oakwood Hospital, Dearborn Michigan, May 1990
A transcendental entity has extension or being beyond the limits of ordinary experience. The premise of this presentation is that endorphins have transcendental significance, because the presence of these chemicals in the nervous system supports the existence of a benevolent deity at work in the universe.
The word endorphin is a contraction of the phrase endogenous morphine. In 1971, Goldstein et al discovered opiate receptors in the brains of animals. The presence of these receptors in animals never exposed to exogenous narcotics implied the existence of an endogenous opiate. Four years later, John Hughes, of the Unit for Research on Addictive Drugs at the University of Abderdeen, published a paper in Brain Research entitled: "Isolation of an endogenous compound from the brain with pharmacological properties similar to morphine." Hughes found the compound in the brains of pigs, cows, rabbits, and rats. Soon a whole family of peptide molecules--the opiate polypeptide system--was discovered and later synthesized, including endorphins (9-10 amino acid peptides) and enkephalins (either of two pentapeptides).
Interest in endorphins soon reached the lay press. Articles appeared in the New York Times and Newsweek magazine. As more information became available, the substances were discovered to have an extremely broad biological spectrum. Endorphins are present in the nervous systems of invertebrates as well as vertebrates and are found in any animal capable of experiencing pain, from mammals to sea slugs. The substances are not confined to the nervous system. They have a widespread distribution throughout the body. These observations suggest that endorphins have a long evolutionary history and that they play a essential role in cell to cell communication.
What do endorphins actually do? Of what significance are they from a therapeutic standpoint? Early promise of widespread therapeutic application has not born fruit. Copolov and Helme, in a review article entitled, "Enkephalins and Endorphins: Clinical, Pharmacological, and Therapeutic Implications," which appeared in the journal, Drugs in l983 offered the following observation:
"Eight years of intensive research following the initial isolation and synthesis of endorphins (endogenous opioid polypeptides) has not resulted in any generally accepted novel therapeutic application of endorphins or their antagonists. Indeed, it must be stated that even physiological roles of endorphins have yet to be firmly established. This anticlimactic situation is mollified by reports from groups which have gathered at least experimental support for the usefulness of such compounds in conditions as different as spinal shock and schizophrenia."
Despite the apparent lack of a unifying concept about the function of endorphins, a great deal is known about what they do.
The most important effect of endogenous opiates is the production of analgesia. Endorphins have profound analgesic effects, but when given as analgesic drugs, they produce rapid tolerance. This implies that the compounds are most effective in the production of short-term, acute pain reduction. There seems to be agreement that endorphins mediate the so-called placebo effect and that they also mediate the beneficial effects of acupunture. When applied locally in the nervous system as intrathecal agents, endorphins produce profound analgesia.
My own interest in endorphins began during military service in West Germany. Several young servicemen had been involved in a helicopter accident and were brought to the emergency department at the 130th General Hospital in Nuremberg. Despite mutilating injuries, many of these mortal, the victims did not appear to be in pain. Several of the corpsmen on duty that day commented that they had seen similar instances of massive, overwhelming trauma in Viet Nam where the injured man did not appear to be experiencing any pain.
I later encountered a passage in Specimen Days written by Walt Whitman, who served as a volunteer nurse during the Civil War.
"A poor fellow in ward D, with a fearful wound in a fearful condition, was having some loose splinters of bone taken from the neighborhood of the wound. The operation was long, and one of great pain, yet after it was well commenced, the soldier bore it in silence. You may hear groans or other sounds of unendurable suffering from two or three of the cots, but in the main there is quiet--almost a painful absence of demonstration."
The analgesic effects of endorphins seem clearly responsible for these dramatic experiences.
A second effect of endorphins is the production of euphoria. Stein and Belluzi wrote about this in "Brain Endorphins and the Sense of Well Being;" Raven Press, 1978. Endorphins are now thought to be responsible for runner's euphoria. Long distance runners describe a threshold of pain beyond which euphoria appears that is interpreted by some as a mystical, even religious experience. Again, similar observations appear in literature. The following is a quotation from Tolstoy's War and Peace.
"Owing to the terrible uproar and the necessity for concentration and activity, Tushin did not experience the slightest unpleasant sense of fear, and the thought that he might be killed or badly wounded never occurred to him. On the contrary, he became more and more elated. It seemed to him that it was a very long time ago almost a day, since he had first seen the enemy and fired the first shot, and that the corner of the field he stood on was well-known and familiar ground. Though he thought of everything, considered everything, and did everything the best of officers could do in his position, he was in a state akin to feverish delirium or drunkenness."
Despite the euphoria induced by endorphins, no conclusive role for the substances in addiction or alcoholism has been discovered.
The analgesic, euphoric effects of endorphins could be construed as beneficial to a traumatized or severely emotionally stressed animal. The lack of pain and the induction of a state of well being would certainly alleviate what could otherwise be a dreadful experience. But other research suggests that the massive release of endorphins during trauma may represent a two-edged sword. In fact, it would appear that endogenous narcotics may be as harmful as heroin.
Endorphins cause respiratory depression similar to the effects of exogenous morphine. They also induce immobility by decreasing muscle tone. In rats, endorphins produce a catatonic state of immobility. Although not proved, the substances may play a similar role in human catatonic schizophrenia. Lastly, endorphins induce profound vascular collapse. Recognition of this fact had led to a potential role of morphine antagonists in certain form of shock. Peters et al described the pressor effect of Naloxone in septic shock in an article that appeared in Lancet in 1981.
It would appear that under the proper circumstances--i.e. in states of severe, overwhelming stress--it is possible to overdose (O.D.) on the body's own endogenous narcotics!
In summary, endorphins are old substances from an evolutionary standpoint. They have a broad biological spectrum, appearing in almost all animals. They have not yet been discovered in plants. They act intimately within the nervous system, as well as outside of it. They produce four major effects: analgesia, euphoria, vascular collapse, and respiratory depression. Similarity to the effects of large doses of morphine should be obvious. Work is being done to clarify the role of endorphins in events of everyday life, such as transcendental meditation and centering prayer.
Clearly, endorphins are involved in the stress reaction. Diagrams of the "Fight or Flight" reaction in textbooks of physiology now include endorphins.
At this point I wanted to show a slide of a saber toothed tiger. Early in the biological history of our species, an attack by such an animal was certain to induce a fight versus flight response. The slide I was able to obtain depicts a Bengal tiger in an advertisement for Barnum and Bailey's Greatest Show on Earth. The slide seems adequate since it suggests that an attack by any kind of tiger is probably no circus.
Incorporating what we have learned about the role of endorphins into the classic hormonal responses that occur during the fight versus flight reaction, I can describe the "Saber toothed Tiger Phenomenon" as occurring in two phases.
Initially, there is a Catecholamine, Cortisol, early Endorphin phase. During this portion of the reaction, an increase in heart rate, blood pressure, muscle tone, an increase in pupillary size, and an elevation of the eyelids--all mediated by adrenal hormones--prepare the organism to gracefully leave the scene (flight) or maximize its chances of survival if flight is not possible (fight). Endorphins at this stage are producing analgesia, so wounds can be ignored for the moment. Endorphins are also producing euphoria. The organism might presume that it can win a battle with a saber toothed tiger.
The above effects are extremely beneficial to an evolving species engaging in the struggle for survival. This is a critically important point that will be elaborated later.
The organism encountering a saber toothed tiger might escape. If so, the reaction could be aborted at this initial stage. Should the organism not be so fortunate and find itself instead in the jaws of the tiger, the reaction then enters a Late Endorphin phase. The endorphins are still effecting analgesia and euphoria. Pain and despair are alleviated. But the endorphins are also inducing vascular collapse and respiratory depression, hastening death, and shortening the period of suffering.
Such effects can be construed as extremely beneficial to the individual organism caught in the jaws of fate. The importance of endorphins from the perspective of the individual is a second critical point that will be addressed later. Endorphins, in states of extreme stress associated with life threatening trauma, may mediate a quick and merciful death. The presence of large amounts of endorphin may be the explanation of why the scream ceases in mid fall.
The reader should at this point be forewarned that thinking about endorphins can be addicting. Endorphins are endogenous opiates. The author, one of the first endorphin junkies, began to find evidence of endorphins in unexpected places.
The Flemish painter, Dirk Bouts, crafted a diptych entitled The Justice of Otto. The two panels tell a continuous story. On the left, Otto's wife is seen informing the emperor that one of his subjects has made improper overtures to her. In the middle of that panel, the accused (in a white robe) is informing his own wife of his innocence. Despite the falsehood of the accusation, the accused is subjected to death by beheading. One might gain some solace from the knowledge that endorphins are at work in that severed head, perhaps mollifying a sense of outraged injustice.
The story continues in the panel on the right. Here, the effects of endorphins are strikingly evident. At the bottom of the panel, the wife of the accused is holding a red hot ingot in her hand in a trial of truth as she proclaims her husband's innocence to the astonished emperor. The ability to hold the ingot, or to walk on a bed of hot coals, are explicable as effects of endorphins. At the upper section of the right panel, the evil wife gets her just deserts. She is burned at the stake by Otto for her perfidy. Perhaps in sympathy we should note that endorphins are probably ameliorating her suffering. In fact, the authors of the medieval manual on witch hunting, the Malleus Malificarum, noted with some consternation that burned witches rarely scream. The authors of the tract attributed that to benefits construed by the devil. Now, of course, we recognize once again the effects of endorphins.
Another Flemish painter, Gerard David, depicted the punishment of flaying in a work called The Justice of Cambyses. A dishonest judge pays the ultimate penalty for taking bribes in this striking panel. As we observe the brutal removal of his skin, we are reminded of the assistance endorphins are providing to his stoical resolve in the acceptance of his fate.
We earlier made reference to situations depicted in literature where endorphins seemed to be at work, as in the Whitman and Tolstoy passages quoted above. James Joyce in the Calypso episode of Ulysses has Leopold Bloom make the following observation: "Curious mice never squeal. Seem to like it." Mice probably don't like being eaten by cats, but endorphins allow them to bear their fate without squealing.
As my interest in, or addiction to, endorphins matured, I decided to write a novel that would address the possible transcendental significance of endorphins. The book is entitled, The Man Who Could Read Minds. My first problem was to create a typical situation where endorphins would be flowing. The novel opens as follows:
A young man, perhaps in his early thirties, hurried along a darkened and deserted street beneath a winter sky aglitter with crystal stars, a sky that offered no warmth and less solace. The man was carrying a small satchel.
-cccold ... castor and pollux ... homoto ... coast guard academy ... true virgins make dull companions.
Shadows encroached upon spaces hidden within shabby recessed storefronts. Into these, the young man glanced suspiciously. He was in a dangerous part of town, near the waterfront.
-one should never be where one does not belong.
Ahead, the man monitored with anticipation the diminishing space that existed between him and the automobile he had rented. Toward this refuge, he hurried along at a brisk pace.
-almost there ... johnny boy, I’m on the fifth step ... give me back my liver ... keys ... the keys to ... key lime pie.
Entering the car with alacrity, the young man fumbled at the ignition as he sat enveloped in the misty cloud of his own exhalation. The cold lent a squeaky crispness to the surface of things.
"Start motherfucker!" he spoke aloud.
The engine sputtered to life, died, sputtered again, died, and then finally settled into a crescendo of resurrected mechanical life.
-I loved a girl with a twelve-cylinder frame and two pistons the size of grapefruit ... she had no rings on her fingers and no rings in her nose...she shall have music wherever she goes.
Suddenly the driver detected vague movement behind and to his left. He had just begun to react by rolling down the window when the silence of the night was shattered by a deafening explosion. A small caliber missile entered the left side of the young man's skull just above and behind the ear.
The steering wheel rose up in a smoothly gliding arc as the young man was swallowed by a dark and densely suffocating nothingness.
ma, is that you?...did I die, ma? ... why did they do that to me ma ma maaaaaa? ... my whole life is passing, ma...before my ... deadly pain ... dead...I’m really dead.
In addition to flooding his brain with endorphins, the singular event of being shot in the head has profound consequences for the character. He regains consciousness in a hospital on a neuro-surgical ward. He finds he has suffered amnesia. He can remember nothing about his life after the age of thirteen and he has only vague recollections of his earlier years. He was brought to the hospital with no identification on his person and is assigned the name John Doe, which for him becomes "Jon Dough." But in addition to his amnesia, Jon Dough soon learns that he has acquired telepathic ability and can read minds. He postulates that the lead in the bullet (which has been left in his brain) may be reacting to the acids in his brain to create a battery powered crystal radio that is picking up thoughts electronically. Jon Dough decides to withhold his ability to read minds from other people.
I must admit that I had a great deal of fun dealing with Jon Dough's predicament, especially some of the sexual issues. Since Jon Dough can experience sex in his own mind and simultaneously in the mind of his partner, he worries that he may be a bisexual. On a more serious note, however, is Jon Dough's conviction that shortly after being shot, he briefly went to heaven. He insists that his experience was not a "vision" of heaven.
Endorphins first appear in The Man Who Could Read Minds in Chapter Ten, pages 53ff. Dr. Norman Allison, Jon Dough's neurosurgeon, feels that his patient's "vision of heaven," was part of a near death experience mediated by endorphins.
Dr. Allison's explanation of John Doe's beatific vision was more provincially mundane, as well as more scientific.
"Endorphins," he said.
-an end to orphans ... and the ages of orphans.
"What are orphans?" Jon asked.
Norman Allison looked at his patient quizzically and then shook his head slowly in disbelief.
"Orphans are children without parents, John, like Oliver Twist."
-who the dickens is oliver twist?
"Endorphins are chemical substances that exist in the brain. They produce euphoric analgesia -- pain relief -- in response to stress. They act at receptor sites identical to those of the drug morphine and produce well-being similar to that induced by narcotics. Are you following this?"
-do you think i'm a dope, norman?...rope a dopey--one of the seven orphans.
Jon Dough nodded affirmatively.
"When you were shot, John, your nervous system undoubtedly sustained a massive outpouring of these chemical substances, endorphins. You mainlined yourself, John, shot yourself up in effect. The subsequent euphoric high you experienced probably produced a sensation that you interpreted as akin to being in heaven."
The first take home point of The Man Who Could Read Minds and of this presentation is the likelihood that death or near death may not be the bad experiences we have been led to fear. Endorphins, at such times, may mediate a grand adventure. This may be an interesting proposition, but hardly "transcendental."
Before I can proceed with my argument that there is transcendental significance to the existence of endorphins, I have to digress. I would like to title the digression, a scientific view of a randomly evolving universe. During the digression, the reader must keep clearly in mind, however, that this presentation is about endorphins. This may be a big order.
I would like to begin my digression by asking the reader to recall or seek out a reproduction of the magnificent portraits of Adam and Eve found in Jan Van Eyck's Adoration of the Mystic Lamb. Looking at these two beautiful people, one may find it difficult to believe such individuals could have gotten into trouble. We have been taught, though, that Adam and Eve committed original sin in the Garden of Eden. The two of them ate of the forbidden fruit, not of the apple tree, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. John Milton describes the crime in Paradise Lost.
"Of Man's First Disobedience, and the Fruit of that Forbidden Tree whose mortal taste Brought Death into the World and all our woe"
Milton seems to place the blame squarely on Adam's shoulders. I have always felt that Eve has been blamed unfairly. Much has been written about the nature of that sin in the garden, but I am proposing here the sin may have been hubris, our less than humble insistence on making humankind the measure of all things. From that first taste of the fruit of the tree of knowledge, our species has sought increasingly detailed information about who we are, where we are, and why we are. A fair question to ask is what has our quest for the answers to such questions brought us?
Well, for one thing, we have had to give up our place at the center of the Aristotelian/Ptolemeic universe to a sobering, even demeaning, modern view of our place in space. From the center of our universe we have been relegated to existence on a rock orbiting a minor star at the edge of a galaxy no different than countless other galaxies.
So, where are we? Where are we really? I would like to refer the reader to a demonstration of one answer to that question provided by the Dutch educator, Kees Boeke. Boeke's Cosmic View can be found in Volume 8 of the series Gateway to the Great Books, published by the Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc.
Cosmic View begins with a rather benign view of a young girl holding a cat as she sits in a rocking chair. Each subsequent picture moves the observer ten times farther away from the last view and reduces the size of objects in the previous view by a factor of ten. The young girl theoretically remains at the center of each view. One centimeter in the first picture is equivalent to 10 centimeters in reality. One centimeter in the second picture is equivalent to 100 centimeters or one meter in reality. Each subsequent picture surveys a progressively larger area of space. Cosmic View speaks volumes for the fact that a picture is worth a thousand words. I cannot do justice to the visual impact of the series, which I highly encourage the reader to explore. The following remarks represent a few highlights.
By the time we reach view number 4, one centimeter in the picture is equivalent to 100 meters. We are looking down on the original scene from 15,000 feet, the height of Europe's highest mountain, Mont Blanc.
In view number 5 we are looking down on the original scene from a distance of 30 miles from the ground.
View eight gives us a view of the entire earth. One centimeter in this picture is now equivalent to 1000 kilometers.
Another jump places us 312,500 miles from earth, more than the distance from the earth to the moon.
By the time we reach view number 10, one centimeter in the picture now equals 100,000 kilometers. Light traveling across the page would require 1.3 seconds to travel the distance from the earth to the moon.
View 12 places us at a point where the earth is no longer visible. Our sun in this view would be 1.4 millimeters in diameter.
The sun has diminished in size to 140 microns in view number 13. One centimeter in the picture is equivalent to 100 million kilometers.
Our scales of magnitude are no longer relevant by the time we reach view number 14. The view shows the entire solar system, although the orbits of the planets would not be visible. At this scale, light would take 11 hours to cross the solar system and 14 hours to cross the entire page.
If we could observe events on earth in view number 16 through a telescope, the light would require 6 months to reach us. Therefore we would be observing events that took place 6 months earlier in time.
In view number 18, one centimeter on the page represents the distance light travels in one light year. We can now see Alpha Centauri, which is 4 light years from earth.
View 19 shows some of the 36 stars known to be less than 50 light years from earth. In this view, the sun would be 0.00014 microns in diameter, about the size of an atom. The sun would no longer be visible to the naked eye.
From this point, every jump makes our next point of observation inconceivably farther away.
In view 21, the sun and its 36 neighbors are no more than a dot.
By the time we reach view number 22, the entire Milky Way galaxy is visible. One centimeter on this page is equivalent to the distance light would travel in 10,000 years.
In view number 24, one centimeter is equivalent to 1,000,000 light years. If all other stars were removed from the scene, we could visualize our local family of galaxies.
Finally, by the time we reach view number 26 individual galaxies have been reduced to mere dots. One centimeter on this page is equivalent to 100 million light years. About 1000 million galaxies are visible through our telescopes. The farthest of these is 2000 million light years from earth. This final view suggests that we know only a fraction of what exists in the universe.
"The fruit of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste…"
We have become more aware our position within the universe since we tasted the fruit of the tree of knowledge, but we have also learned how infinitesimally small we are.
Unfortunately, Kees Boeke is not finished with us. Returning to the original view of the young girl, he reverses the process probing ever farther into the realm of the very small. If we could enter the scene depicted in the 10th view in this series, a crystal of salt on the girl's skin would be 1800 miles high. The young girl would be 9 million miles high. And so, Kees Boeke teaches us how infinitesimally large we are.
Cosmic View does not even take us into the realm of the subatomic particles. What are leptons, electrons, muons, neutrinos, massive tau leptons, and their associated antiparticles. What are quarks? We know the term was lifted by the nuclear physicists from Joyce's Finnegans Wake, but what are up, down, charmed, strange, true, and beautiful quarks? Are we helped any to know that quarks exist in three primary colors, red, white, and blue?
In the forty scales of magnitude in Kees Boeke's series, life as we know it exists in only ten. Does life exist in the other scales in forms we don't know of?
"The fruit of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste…"
Recently, I came across a photograph consisting of two square panels side by side. The left panel is empty. The right panel contains a small black dot. The left panel depicts our universe at the time of the big bang singularity. Nothing is visible because at that instant, our entire universe was 10 to the minus 32 centimeters in diameter. The dot in the right panel represents the size of the universe at some point within one second of the big bang singularity. The reader must keep in mind that this dot is not a tiny universe inside our own universe. The dot is our entire universe, an entity of the size depicted by Kees Boeke's first series of pictures as huge beyond our comprehension, as it actually existed at one point in time.
Confronted by concepts like these, I am reminded of a lyric in one of Bob Dylan's songs:
"Something is happening here, but you don't know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?"
If one of the ultimate questions is "Where are we?," the answer seems formidable. We appear to exist at an arbitrary point on a relative scale of being on the surface of a planet revolving around a minor star in the midst of nowhere.
Our taste of the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge, and the Copernican Revolution that has followed, seems to have taken us from a position at the center of the universe to a more accurate, but sobering view of our location at the edge of an abyss.
If hubris was our original sin, we seem to have paid a dreadful price for our folly.
Unfortunately for us, the story is not yet over.
As if the Copernican revolution were not hard enough for humankind to accept, we have also had to deal with the implications of the Darwinian revolution. Only conservative backlash has delayed our declaration of Darwin's Law of Evolution.
The basic principle of Darwinism is that randomly occurring mutations that benefit an evolving species are selected for and transmitted to offspring, thereby increasing the chances of survival of that species. The reader should be aware that Darwin's book is entitled: The Origin of Species.
The evolutionary process requires the production of more offspring than the environment can support. What has always bothered me about Darwinism is the fate of the individual organism.
Consider the following quote from John Hughes' original article on endorphins. You do recall that this is a lecture about endorphins?
Methods: Extraction of tissues.
Rabbit, guinea pig, rat and pig brains were studied. The brain was removed as quickly as possible after killing the animal by cervical dislocation, carbon dioxide poisoning or intravenous air embolism. The cortex and cerebellum were discarded and the remainder frozen on solid carbon dioxide and crushed to a fine powder.
We can only hope there were plenty of endorphins around to bring some solace to these organisms as their brains were converted to a fine powder "as quickly as possible."
My own favorite depiction of the fate of the individual organism appears in Tennessee Williams' play, Suddenly Last Summer.
MRS. VENABLE: He read me Herman Melville's description of the Encantadas, the Galapagos Islands ... We saw the Encantadas, but on the Encantadas we saw something Melville hadn't written about. We saw the great sea turtles crawl up out of the sea for their annual egg-laying...Once a year the female of the sea turtle crawls up out of the equatorial sea onto the blazing sand-beach of a volcanic island to dig a pit in the sand and deposit her eggs there. It's a long and dreadful thing, the depositing of the eggs in the sand pits, and when it's finished the exhausted female turtle crawls back to the sea half dead. She never sees her offspring, but we did. Sebastian knew exactly when the sea turtle eggs would be hatched out and we returned in time for it...
DOCTOR: You went back to the---?
MRS. VENABLE: Terrible Encantadas, those heaps of extinct volcanos, in time to witness the hatching of the sea turtles and their desperate flight to the sea!
(There is a sound of harsh bird-cries in the air. She looks up.)
The narrow beach, the color of caviar, was all in motion! But the sky was in motion, too ...
DOCTOR: The sky was in motion, too?
MRS. VENABLE: --- Full of flesh-eating birds and the noise of the birds, the horrible savage cries of the---
DOCTOR: Carnivorous birds?
MRS. VENABLE: Over the narrow black beach of the Encantadas as the just hatched sea turtles scrambled out of the sand pits and started their race to the sea...
DOCTOR: Race to the sea?
MRS. VENABLE: To escape the flesh-eating birds that made the sky almost black as the beach!
(She gazes up again: we hear the wild, ravenous, harsh cries of the birds. The sound comes in rhythmic waves like a savage chant.)
And the sand all alive, all alive, as the hatched sea-turtles made their dash for the sea, while the birds hovered and swooped to attack and hovered and --- swooped to attack! They were diving down on the hatched sea turtles, turning them over to expose their soft undersides, tearing the undersides open and rending and eating their flesh. Sebastian guessed that possibly only a hundredth of one per cent of their number would escape to the sea..."
You may be thinking that life is particularly hard on baby sea turtles. We can perhaps gain some comfort in the knowledge that endorphins may be at work to alleviate the horror of the attack by the sea birds.
But what about the fate of the individual members of our own species, as depicted--say--in the portrait of Jedocus Vyd, the donor of the Ghent Altarpiece? Do individual human beings fare any better than individual baby sea turtles?
Give some thought to the brain that lies behind Vyd's imposing skull. As you contemplate that organ, I would like to offer a short summary of the evolution of the vertebrate nervous system.
The adult human brain or encephalon is divided into three major divisions anatomically. During the course of the evolution of the vertebrate nervous system, the brain developed from aft forward. The degree of development and intricacy of structure of the three divisions is directly correlated with the behavioral complexity of the organism in question. In the Amphioxus, a primitive lancelet confined to a sedentary existence buried alone in the mud with its filter feeding apparatus exposed to the surrounding water, the nervous system is a simple tube. The lamprey is a representative of the Cyclostomes. In this species, parasitic existence implies the seeking out and identification of a host via smell. The hindbrain of the lamprey has a primitive cerebellum to coordinate movement. Its forebrain has paired olfactory lobes.
The fishes, the first free swimmers, display convolutions in the cerebellum. The hindbrain of a fish is still the dominant division of its nervous system. Forebrain ascendancy begins with the reptiles and amphibians.
A hypothalamus appears for the first time in the forebrains of birds and primitive mammals. The development of the hypothalamus represents a monumental evolutionary step forward. The ability to regulate body temperature internally, mediated by the hypothalamus, frees the organism's metabolic rate from the nuances of climatic flux and opens far greater ranges of geographic latitude. The stage is now set for cerebration in all seasons. The cerebral hemispheres, however, are still rudimentary in these animals. Behavior remains stereotyped, without individual plasticity. Perhaps for the birds, the ecstacy of flight is compensation enough.
Ascendancy of the cerebral cortex begins and progresses rapidly among the higher mammals until the first shrew-like primate is able to rise shakily to its feet to take a giant evolutionary step toward mankind. Assumption of an upright stance emancipates the upper extremity from the labors of locomotion allowing it to become a tool for grasping. A shift of the eyes from the side of the head to the front produces parallel visual axes. Stereoscopic vision permits a view of world in the depth of three dimensional space. Cerebral cortical development provides the first inkling of common sense. Early primates beat a hasty retreat from the savage gnashing of teeth and rending of flesh on the ground to the relative safety of an arboreal existence in the trees.
Finally, hominids appear. The increasingly convoluted cerebral cortices of these animals facilitates the construction by them of a world view based on the concepts of space, time, and causal relationships. Hominids can modify behavior based upon a retained mental image of experience. These animals are now able to make predictions about sensory data in terms of a conceptual future. The early anthropoid is able to grasp an object between its opposable thumb and fingers as a tool. Ala Stanley Kubrick, to the strains of Thus Spake Zarathustra, the anthropoid is able to relate an object as an agent of cause and effect first to the retained memory of a past experience and then to a conceptualized circumstance occurring later in time.
The evolution of Jodocus Vyd's brain required 480 million years, probably beginning during the Ordovician period of the Paleozoic Era. The process of the evolution of the vertebral nervous system from the amphioxus to the human brain is a story of poetical impact. It is a story of the near perfect melding of structure and function through a series of such monumental advances that the species of which Jedocus Vyd is an individual member was able to become the undisputed master of the earth.
But what has been the impact of the evolution of the vertebrate nervous system upon the fate of the individual human being? What has been the significance of the evolution of the brain--an event of monumental advantage for the human species--for the individual human primate, an example of which is Jodocus Vyd and, of course, each and every one of us. This same ability to conceptualize time (noetic time) together with the organism's consciousness of it's being there has--after Milton--"brought death into the world and all our woe."
Funerary practices begin with Neanderthal man. THE PROJECTION OF THE TERMINATION OF ONE'S INDIVIDUAL EXISTENCE TO A POINT IN AN IMAGINED FUTURE MAKES DEATH THE SINGULAR HUMAN PROBLEM.
An eloquent expression of the problem appears in Robert Burns' poem, "To a Mouse on Turning Her up in Her Nest with the Plough: November, 1785."
But Mousie, thou art no thy lane,
In proving foresight may be vain.
The best-laid schemes o mice an' men
Gang aft agley,
An' leave us nought but grief an' pain,
For promis'd joy!
Still thou art blest, compared wi me!
The present only toucheth thee:
But och! I backward cast my ee,
On prospects drear!
An' forward tho I canna see,
I guess an' fear!
The relatively primitive nervous system of the mouse does not permit conceptualization of its impending doom. The bleak December winds will come. There is no longer sufficient stubble to allow the mouse to rebuild its nest. It will die. But, the mouse is blessed compared to the poet. The nervous system of the human has advanced to a degree of sophistication that does permit conceptualization of an imagined future. The poet's great insight is that the mouse is blessed compared with him. The present moment only has an impact upon the mouse. Unlike the poet, the mouse simply does not know that death will be its fate.
"The fruit of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste brought death into the world and all our woe!"
The result of our knowledge has produced the angst captured by Edvard Munch in The Scream. Still, Albert Camus reminds us that:
"In the universe restored to its silence the myriad wondering little voices of the earth rise up."
It has been essential to our survival that we respond to the scream.
Human responses to the scream have been varied. Camus asks about that sleep necessary to life. For some people, keeping focused on the present moment, the here and now, brings blessed relief through denial that the problem of death exists.
Others have made valiant attempts to deal with the problem.
Voltaire concludes that if God did not exist, it would be necessary for us to invent him. We need God to obviate the possibility that death will annihilate us.
Soren Kierkegaard declares:
"If man had no eternal consciousness, if at the bottom of everything, there were merely a wild seething force producing everything, both large and trifling, in the storm of dark passions, if the bottomless void that nothing can fill underlay all things, what would life be but despair?"
Indeed. For Kierkegaard, the answer to the problem of death and despair is a leap into faith in the existence of eternal consciousness.
In the West, Christianity has provided the necessary anodyne to the pain of death for the thinking animal who devotes his or her life to the resurrected Christ. There are alternatives to Christianity, of course, but most of the world's great religions have provided in one form or another a theological constant, the promise of eternal life.
Great poets and writers have given us mystical assurances of immortality.
Dostoevsky writes in The Brothers Karamazov,
"Karamazov," cried Kolya. "Can it be true as they teach us in church, that we shall all rise again from the dead and shall live and see each other again, all, Ilusha, too?"
"Certainly we shall all rise again, certainly we shall see each other and shall tell each other with joy and gladness all that has happened!" Alyosha answered, half laughing, half enthusiastic.
Oh, how wonderful it will be!" cried Kolya.
Saint Paul, in I Corinthians, 15, stirs our imaginations with the hope that nothingness will not be our lot after death.
"I am going to tell you a mystery. Not all of us shall fall asleep, but all of us are to be changed--in an instant, in the twinkling of an eye, at the sound of the last trumpet. The trumpet will sound and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed ... When the corruptible frame takes on incorruptibility and the mortal immortality, then will the saying of Scripture be fulfilled: Death is swallowed up in victory. 0 death, where is your victory? 0 death, where is your sting?"
"The seed you sow does not germinate unless it dies. When you sow, you do not sow the fullblown plant, but a kernel of wheat or some other grain. God gives body to it as he pleases--to each seed its own fruition. There are heavenly bodies and there are earthly bodies. The splendor of the heavenly bodies is one thing, that of the earthly another. The sun has a splendor of its own, so has the moon, and the stars have theirs. So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown in the earth is subject to decay, what rises is incorruptible. What is sown is ignoble, what rises up is glorious. Weakness is sown, strength rises up. A natural body is put down and a spiritual body comes up."
The seed, when it dies, has no conception of the flower it will become. Similarly, we have no idea what death will actually be like. For me, Walt Whitman eloquently states the case for an unimaginable state following death in "Song of Myself" from Leaves of Grass.
"A child said What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands;
How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is any more than he.
I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven.
Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord, a scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropt, bearing the owner's name someway in the corners, that we may see and remark, and say Whose?
Or I guess the grass is itself a child, the produced babe of the vegetation.
Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic, and it means, sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow zones, growing among black folk as among white, Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the same, I receive them the same.
And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.
Tenderly will I use you curling grass, it may be you transpire from the breasts of young men, it may be if I had known them I would have loved them, it may be you are from old people, or from offspring taken soon out of their mother's laps, and here you are the mothers' laps.
This grass is very dark to be from the white heads of old mothers, darker than the colorless beards of old men, dark to come from under the faint red roofs of mouths.
O, I perceive after all so many uttering tongues, and I perceive they do not come from the roofs of mouths for nothing.
I wish I could translate the hints about the dead young men and women, and the hints about old men and mothers, and the offspring taken soon out of their laps.
What do you think has become of the young and old men? And what do you think has become of the women and children?
They are alive and well somewhere, the smallest sprout shows there is really no death, and if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it, and ceased the moment life appeared.
All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses, and to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier."
The problem with such assurances that God is in heaven and all will be well with us once our existence is terminated is that God speaks very softly of these things. A leap into faith, even though contrary to human reason, is still necessary and appears to be the route taken by most people, if the polls and surveys are correct. The only alternatives might be Camus' intellectual sleep or the espousal of some more intellectually comfortable doctrine, such as agnostic existentialism--I know that I exist, but I'm not so sure about whether God exists.
Perhaps a breakdown of faith is the cause of our modern cynicism. Even our bumper stickers tell us that "life's a bitch and then you die."
This brings me to the end of my long digression. In summary, the evolution of the vertebrate nervous system--culminating in the human brain--gave us the ability to take that mortal taste of the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Our original sin brought death into our world and all our woe.
With the above in mind, we can now return to a consideration of the transcendental significance of endorphins.
First of all, I don't believe that our quest for knowledge was in any way sinful. Perhaps our real problem is that we don't yet have enough knowledge. After all, a little knowledge can be a bad thing. We know that the earth is about 4 billion years old. We know that conscious reflection has been happening for about 1.2 million years. Recorded history spans a little more than 8000 years. Perhaps our hope may lie in the great deal of time available to us.
My conclusion is that we must keep searching. Maybe the answers are there right before our eyes, but we have not yet learned to see the forest for the trees. Could there be something about endorphins that we have not yet considered?
I would like to return to Dr. Norman Allison's reflections about endorphins in The Man Who Could Read Minds.
Norman Allison took out his pipe.
"You know, there's an interesting twist to this issue of endorphins," he said.
-an oliver twist?
"Not only do endorphins produce an incredible sense of well-being in the face of massive, often fatal trauma," Dr. Allison continued, "but they also speed up the demise of the injured animal by facilitating vascular collapse. If one happens to unfortunately find oneself in the jaws of a saber toothed tiger, not only is the pain of such a horrible ending ameliorated, but the duration of the ordeal itself is shortened."
Dr. Allison paused to light up and take a few puffs.
what's that you're smoking, norman--wacky tabacky?
Go ahead, Allison. It's not every day you get to talk to your patients about God.
"I find the existence of endorphins fascinating from a philosophical standpoint, John. Everything in evolutionary nature points to the sobering conclusion that in the struggle for survival the fate of the species is primary to that of the individual animal. So long as the species bottom lines in the black, the individual members of that species seem to be as expendable as so many lemmings or sea turtles eaten by birds of prey in their mad rush to the sea.
"But the existence of endorphins completely reverses such a dismal point of view. The presence of these substances in the brain suggests instead--to me at least--that they have been inserted into the nervous system almost out of concern for the individual, as a kind of benevolent gift to the organism when it falls victim to the natural order of things. To me, endorphins speak softly, but eloquently, of the existence of a transcendental entity that almost paternalistically cares about us, John, and that has provided for us mercifully in our times of greatest need. I take great solace in such a concept every time I'm paged to the emergency room."
What are the implications of Dr. Allison's point of view?
Darwinism implies that only those traits of benefit to an evolving species are selected for. At high levels, endorphins are lethal. Why, then, should the opiate polypeptide system have been selected? Endorphins are of great benefit to any suffering individual organism and they are nearly ubiquitous in nature. In a coldly impersonal, godless universe, why should the suffering of the expendable individual have been of concern? Why should endorphins even exist?
One conclusion might be that endorphins were incorporated into the nervous system by a transcendental entity--the term, God, is sometimes too cliched to express what we really mean by it--concerned enough for the individual organism to have provided for it in its time of greatest need. Perhaps benevolence and mercy really do lie at the heart of the mysterious universe we live in.
The French priest, Father Pierre Teilhard De Chardin offers a view of evolution quite different from that implied by classical Darwinism. Father Teilhard suggests that the force vector of the evolutionary process is not really a thrust upward from the depths of the swamp. Instead, he posits a drawing upward of the life force effected by a transcendent spirit. God, if you will, facilitates the evolutionary process in order to bring life into existence and then to allow it to advance to the noetic threshold. The quest for knowledge is not sinful. The ability to know is the culmination of a transcendent plan.
In a scheme of evolution as promulgated by Father Teilhard, the existence of endorphins would make perfect sense.
The Man Who Could Read Minds is a novel about the transcendental significance of endorphins. Jon Dough progresses spiritually throughout the book. He initially uses his ability to read the thoughts of others for selfish gain. Later, as he develops spiritually, he devotes his talents to the welfare of others. In the end, the character makes the redemptive gesture of an ultimate sacrifice.
Perhaps it would be instructive to take a final look at Jon Dough's vision of heaven.
"With a deafening explosion, the plane struck the ground and in the midst of that grinding impact Jon Dough was thrown in fragments through the black door that separates death from life only to be reassembled immediately on the other side.
-and they'll all come to meet me...
He was home...walking through the green green grass of home. And as before, it was not a vision--this heaven. It was unspeakable love and a part of that love was Lois Morganthal who was no longer dead and another part of it was Sister Clara who was no longer alive, but there was no longer any difference between the two.
-what kind of place is this, he said ... air i have, not foam ... it's not a house, he said...it's the green green grass of home."
Anyone curious about Lois Morganthal and Sister Clara will have to read the book.
Shakespeare's final thoughts about life are said to appear in his last play, The Tempest.
"And, like the baseless fabric of this vision
The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep."
The Man Who Could Read Minds, a novel about the transcendental significance of endorphins, suggests that such may not necessarily be the case. Our little lives may not be rounded with a sleep. Therein lies the fabric of Jon Dough's intriguing vision of heaven.