By Deepak Chopra, MD and Rudolph Tanzi, Ph.D.There is enormous interest in power, and especially personal power, which holds the key to every kind of success and achievement. Yet there’s a problem with how we approach personal power. Despite the poet William Wordsworth’s warning that “we murder to dissect,” we analyze power by cutting it up in bits and pieces, trying to tease out the relevant factors from the immensely complex issues open to question. You can examine power as a product of the mind (some people come up with impressive new ideas that have an enormous impact), the product of the brain (some people seem to be hard-wired for great decision-making), or the product of genes (some people have won the DNA lottery, it seems).
But what if the whole is much bigger than the sum of the parts? This certainly must be true when it comes to personal power, because it’s the totality of the person who matters. We call this a “top down” approach, which considers wholeness first, rather than the reductionism of dissecting the whole into the tiniest parts, which is a “bottom up” approach.
You are the product of mind, brain, and genes acting in concert – that much is undeniable – so the big question is “How do they cooperate? What organizes them into a unity rather than as separate parts?”
An emerging field known as systems biology has begun to ask top-down questions like these, because the way we experience life is not reductionist. Instead, we experience the following:
A flow of events matched with a flow of thoughts, sensations, and feelings.
A state of constant change that is matched with a state of balance and non-change.
A body where trillions of cells communicate and cooperate constantly.
A pervasive intelligence that diversifies into mind, brain, and gene, but which can be described by itself as “consciousness.”
When these experiences are taken as the starting point of life, a radical change occurs in the way we live. We find it possible – and very necessary – to promote the whole human being, and to do that, the most powerful approach works at the source. If mind, brain, and genome are organized at the level of consciousness, which is what a top-down perspective declares, then the ultimate personal power lies at the level of consciousness.
There is exciting new data from many quarters to support this conclusion. They indicate, to begin with, that familiar lifestyle changes in diet, exercise, stress management, attitude, and meditation reach all the way down to our genes. Some studies have already spotted hundreds of change in genetic output when positive lifestyle changes are made. This number extends to thousands when meditation alone is intensely studied, and the alterations can occur very quickly, in the first few meditations rather than over years of practice.
Twenty years ago the mind-body connection was intriguing but not necessary in the view of most biologists, psychologists, and physicians. Now we understand that nothing is more necessary; indeed, if you want to care for yourself in the optimal way, it’s the mind-body-brain-gene connection that matters. The top-down approach promises to bring about a quantum leap in self-care, which we call “radical well-being,” the most exciting prospect in wellness to come along in decades.
Even more promising is the prospect of solving the so-called “hard problem” of how mind and brain are related. The reductionist position, embraced by all materialists (or physicalists to use the current term), is that the brain creates the mind. The activity of neurons, both chemical and electrical, creates a fantastically enormous complexity that gives rise to thoughts, feelings, images, and sensations. But to say “matter first, then mind” runs into an insurmountable obstacle. No one has been able to show the point at which the gel-like conglomerate of glucose, salts, fat, proteins, and water that is the human brain learned to think. Just as insurmountable is a second obstacle: No one can explain how brain activity, which is entirely electro-chemical, produces the sight, sound, smell, taste, and texture of a three-dimensional world. There is no light in the brain and no sound, yet somehow the world emerges replete with color and noise.
When consciousness wasn’t taken seriously as a proper scientific topic, these two obstacles were more or less shrugged off. Neuroscience adamantly maintained, as it still does, that “matter first” is the only possible route to explaining the mind. As a result, human beings became robots whose actions are predetermined by fixed neuronal activity, and zombies who imagine that have free choice, will power, and a self, when in reality these are illusions built up from random electro-chemical activity.
To restore our actual experience of life – where we have free will, discover new ideas, and invent a future of our own choosing - it’s necessary to reverse the picture. A “mind first” approach looks at the brain as a physical construct that transmits thoughts, desires, hopes, wishes, and dreams. Can it be possible that mind creates matter rather than the other way around? Absolutely, because every thought you have creates a shift in the chemical activity of your neurons, producing molecules that correspond to your thought. Thanks to the mind-brain-body-genome connection, there is a continual feedback loop that alters every aspect of your life simultaneously, with perfect coordination.
A feedback loop turns input into output, and as this process proceeds, there is dynamic change in the system, creating a new basis for the next input. For example, when you eat breakfast, you turn food into energy, and in the act of eating, you are no longer hungry, which brings an end to breakfast – you are ready to do the next thing on your schedule. When you exercise, you alter the state of your muscles, blood chemistry, digestion, cardiac rhythm, brain activity, and genetic output, to name just the high points. These changes continue until you feel tired enough that you want to stop.
Physiologists already recognize the primacy of feedback loops in the regulation of specific things like hormone levels, and there is a general sense that the body’s state of dynamic balance, or homeostasis, depends upon a number of feedback loops where every cell receives messages from the brain, and from one another, while continually sending messages back. The next step is to realize that all feedback loops are created, governed, and controlled in consciousness. You must desire to eat breakfast or go to the gym in order for this complex system of feedback loops to respond. As much as we are affected by what our bodies do, the source of every mind-body interaction is the mind.
Mind Brain Genome Microbiome
Courtesy of YouTube/The Chopra WellWhen the “matter first” camp clashes with the “mind first” camp, difficult arguments arise. As we all experience, the body does things we don’t intend mentally, of which a heart attack and cancer are drastic examples. Doesn’t this indicate that matter can act on its own? No, because if you accept a top-down approach, it’s the innate intelligence of a heart cell or cancer cell that has gone awry. Intelligence is a quality of consciousness, not of matter. Then what about genetic defects? Surely they are material in origin. Yet the same contention that innate intelligence in biological systems has gone awry can be applied. What’s lacking is our understanding of all the permutations and transformations consciousness can take.
This understanding will come once we merge the incredibly detailed information that science has accumulated with a top-down understanding of how consciousness works. The world’s wisdom traditions have accumulated a fund of knowledge in this regard, but it’s still up to the individual, using insight, self-awareness, and a willing curiosity, to discover and apply this knowledge. In a word, consciousness is the key to personal power. To be in control of your life, to master its countless challenges, what matters most isn’t what you do but who you are. Existence is the foundation of experience, and we will never plumb the mystery of existence until we call upon the resources of consciousness itself.
We will continue this conversation at next week's Milken Institute Global Conference.
Photo credit: www.kratosguide.com
Deepak Chopra, MD, Founder of The Chopra Foundation, Co-Founder of The Chopra Center for Wellbeing, Author of What Are You Hungry For? and Co author with Rudolph E. Tanzi, Super Brain.
Dr. Rudolph E. Tanzi is Director of the Genetics and Aging Research Unit and Vice-Chair of the Department of Neurology at Massachusetts General Hospital. He is also the Joseph P. and Rose F. Kennedy Professor of Neurology at Harvard Medical School. Co author with Deepak Chopra, Super Brain.