Sunday, August 09, 2009

The Power of Belief

Knowing the importance of faith and being curious what science might have to say about it, I came across the book The Biology of Belief by cell biologist Dr. Bruce Lipton. While this book has some science in it, I wouldn’t say it qualifies as a science book. Rather, it is Lipton explaining a process of personal transformation of his world view. Because of that, the book came across to me as a bit egocentric until the science became the focus of the story about 50 pages in. Also, in the early pages I was mildly annoyed by references to Gaia and Mother Nature, typical leftist anthropomorphism for explaining what science alone cannot explain, a pseudo-deity of science.

However, there was some scientific content in the book with interesting possible implications. First, Lipton gradually develops some of the ideas of the currently burgeoning field of epigenetics. Epigenetics is rewriting much of the theory of evolution and ideas of heredity. Many scientists and much of the public has come to believe over time that it is our DNA that determines much about us - from eye color, whether we will get a certain type of cancer, to propensity for depression and much more. What epigenetics tells us is that DNA is only a blueprint, but it is not the brain of a cell. You can take the nucleus that contains the DNA out of a cell and it still functions just fine for quite some time. It turns out that the real brain of a cell that it can’t live without at all is the cellular membrane. The cellular membrane is essentially the nervous system of the cell that acts as its senses of what is going on internally and externally to the cell and determines how the cell will respond to its environment. This process and some others determines what parts of the DNA are read, that is, which parts of the blueprint are activated and which are not. So, in the debate between nature vs. nurture, the pendulum has swung away from nature and predetermination back to nurture - that your environment has more to do with what happens to you than long believed. Amazingly, science is showing that it isn’t just your environment day-to-day, but the environment of your parents when you were conceived and carried in the womb, and even the environment of your parents and your parents’ parents back generations that can affect your life. As a simple example, a mouse containing a gene that makes her yellow colored, diabetic and obese will have offspring that also carry that gene and have the same traits. However, if the mouse is given vitamins and methyl during her lifetime, her offspring will be dark colored, not diabetic, and normal weight, even though they still carry the gene. The vitamins of the mother prevented the gene from being activated in her children. This can be true for humans, too. What your mother was doing before you were even thought of can influence whether you end up with certain cancers or other health problems, because the actions of your parents during their lives can influence whether certain genes you carry become activated in you during your life. On a similar note, stress in your environment and response to your environment can also influence the activation of genes. In other words, how you live and how you respond to stress trumps your genetic destiny in many cases.

The second major scientific concept that Lipton addresses is quantum physics. Some ideas from quantum mechanics tell us that at the inner atomic level, matter and energy are interchangeable. In reality, matter doesn’t quite really exist, it only seems to. At the tiniest levels we can measure, matter is really just a waving of energy, a wave with no substance. Atoms are empty space with vortices of energy that sometimes behave like particles, but that is simply a manifestation of the energy. Material substance does not really seem to exist, and what’s more, the energy that makes up everything often exists in indeterminate states - only observations force them into one state or another. So, things that behave like particles often do so simply because they are being observed (measured). There is really, in one manner of thinking, no substance to you at all - you are just empty space, but perhaps because you are being measured or observed, your atoms exist in a quantum state that behaves in a way that we sense as matter. Really, though, you are energy waves, as is every known thing in the universe. Quantum physics shows that energy interactions alone can have biological effects, giving possible credence to many ideas in eastern medicines about influencing the energy fields of the body for healing. Scientific studies have shown that much of our personality is not limited to the brain alone, but is actually in all the cells in our body. For example, emotions involve total body chemistry - in essence, all of your body’s cells can be said to “feel”, or chemically respond in some way, to what we call an emotion, not just your brain.

Single-celled organisms at times work together in communities for survival, and multi-cellular organisms are many cells working together for survival of the whole, with cells taking on specialized functions just like people living in cities do. Quantum physics tells us that even without touching, everything is interconnected - every cell, every atom, is all just waving energy of the same nothingness, and the waves all interact with each other to varying degree. So what happens in one part of your body can effect another part in unexpected ways, what happens to you can effect someone else, and so on. We are really all part of the same energy, we are all one, and our energies are not confined to our bodies.

The third major scientific idea is about how the body heals itself versus how pharmaceuticals affect the body. One of the miracles of life is that the same chemicals do different things in different places. Histamine in your body activates an inflammatory response to a poison, but only at the site of the poison. Histamine in your brain increases blood flow to the nervous tissue, enhancing your thinking and processing in a time of emergency. When your body needs something, it produces it where it is needed and nowhere else. But most drugs act all over your body, not in one place only. Antihistamines used to quell allergic reactions do not only act where the poison is in your body, but everywhere, including in your brain, dulling your senses and often making you drowsy. Most of the side effects of drugs occur because of this phenomenon of acting all over your body rather than in localized regions where they are needed. This is also a major cause of death - in fact a 2003 study concluded that such drug reactions and similar medical treatment complications were the leading cause of death in the United States, with drug reactions causing 300,000 U.S. deaths per year.

But, on the flip side of this story is how often no treatment ends up being a very good treatment - the story of the placebo effect. Drugs for treating depression (and all others) go through clinical trials before being approved for the general public. In these trials, some patients typically receive a placebo, that is, a pill that contains no medicine, while others receive the medicine. This is done so that the difference between no medicine and the medicine can be properly determined. However, in every trial, some of the people receiving the placebo get better even though they got no medicine. Many often report side effects the same as those known to be associated with the medicine, too. For the depression drugs, about half the studies studies have shown that the placebos actually performed as well as the drugs in terms of people reporting feeling better! This effect does not apply to drugs only - but to all medical treatment. One doctor did a study about knee surgery for osteoarthritis pain. Some of his patients had some material cut out of the knee, others had the knee washed out, and others had opening incisions but nothing done to the knee. The patients who had nothing done to the knee but thought they had, recovered just as well as the other patients. The actual surgical procedures in this study did nothing more for the patients than for those who had nothing done to them at all. People who were immobile before the surgery a year later were playing basketball and going skiing, when all that had been done to them is that a few incisions were made on the side of the knee to simulate that surgery was going to take place.

What this tells us is that people’s beliefs and expectations can be more important than actual treatment, (but it doesn’t negate the need for medicine and doctors altogether). If a person believes a procedure will cure him, in some cases that incontrovertible belief actually causes the cure. Similarly, the doctor’s expectations can matter more than the actual treatment, as well. One example of this was of a doctor who used hypnotic suggestion to cure warts. He was very confident that his procedure would work, and it did. But then he learned that his patient that he had treated for warts all over his chest actually didn’t have warts, but had a serious genetic condition. His confidence waned, and he was unable to get identical results for the sores on the rest of the patient’s body using the exact same procedures. He was eventually able to show that it was his confidence in the outcome that affected the results.

So what does all this, taken together, suggest? It suggests that our beliefs and our thought patterns most likely determine what happens to us more than anything else. Our beliefs can manipulate our response to the environment, and it is our response to the environment that has the most to do with determining our fates. It also tells us that we are all interconnected to everything and everyone and can thus influence and be influenced by anything and anyone, perhaps in ways we do not yet grasp scientifically. It further supports the supposition that a living body is just a manifestation of energy in a particular form, but is not necessarily the seat of consciousness or soul itself. Some people see at the heart of quantum mechanics and cellular biology incontrovertible evidence of God.

And what’s more, they see evidence of the potential power of belief and certainty. For example, when someone questioned the Imam (as) about why he did not rise up at that time. Later, a companion of the Imam (as) entered, and the Imam (as) told him to go enter the fire, and he did. After a time, the furnace was opened, and the man was sitting in the fire, totally unhurt. The questioner then realized he did not have the belief necessary to do what the companion had done, and neither did most people, and this is why the Imam (as) would not rise at that time. But if we think about that companion in the scientific context above, we might suggest that his power of belief that he would not be harmed or that he should trust his Imam (as) was strong enough to protect him, just as some people are cured by belief in medical procedures every day that should do nothing for them. Similarly, we might even suggest that if someone truly could understand and manipulate the energy that constitutes all of us at a quantum level, he could make the fire harmless. Indeed, at the ultimate level, the manipulation of the nothingness that somehow waves as energy could produce matter out of nothing or transform something completely, just as Qur’an says that ‘God says, Be, and it is (Kun faya kun)’, or as the Qur’an describes many miracles of transformation such as of Musa (as)’s staff. While science does not suggest to us how such things can be accomplished, it does suggest that they are indeed possible through mechanisms obeying the “natural laws”. Science is suggesting that through belief and our response to environment, we can change what happens to us and our offspring - our health, our happiness, even perhaps our afterlives.

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