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I am often fascinated by the fact that there are thousands of different species of microorganisms living in and on my body. Just a few months ago, I had a problem with my eyelash mites over-populating, and whenever I eat yogurt I think about the healthy bacteria living happily in my gut. The fact that I am not alone, even when I’m by myself, is not news to me.
But just recently I learned that the bacteria and other microbes that make their home in and on me actually outnumber my own body cells 10 to 1. For every one Eva Cell there are ten immigrant cells, which makes me wonder, what am I exactly?
What I think of as my body is maybe more like a biome – a place where thousands of species live together in harmony (except for when the eyelash mites get a little crazy.) I’m not a person; I’m a walking ecosystem.
And that’s just on the microscopic level. If we go down to the atomic level, things really start to get freaky. Atoms are mostly empty space, and I’m made of atoms, therefore, my body is mostly empty space.
What am I exactly? Just a bunch of nothing?
Good thing I’m more than just my body. I’d like to think so, anyway. I have thoughts and feelings and memories, and those things make me more than just a watery flesh sack of microbes, right?
Recently I was listening to a Radiolab podcast (Bliss) about religious experiences. People often point to spirituality as proof that we are more than just our bodies – there’s something more going on than just biology and physics.
People who have had spiritual experiences often report feeling separated from their bodies; they say that time or space shifts (perhaps time slows down), and they feel or see or understand their connection to the universe in a way that is temporary, but profound.
Walter Pahnke, a minister, physician, and psychologist from Harvard, conducted interviews in the early sixties with people from different religions and cultures and came come up with a list of characteristics that seem to be common to most spiritual experiences.
Pahnke also talked to people who had done LSD and found that when they described their experiences with psychedelic drugs, they often used the exact same language as people who’d had religious experiences. The trippers described transcendence from their bodies, a shifting of time and space, a feeling of connectedness.
Pahnke wondered if it was possible to use drugs to induce a spiritual experience, and so, as part of his PhD research (and with the help of his thesis adviser, the champion of LSD, Timothy Leary), he conducted the famous “Good Friday Experiment” to test his theory.
He came to the conclusion that it may be possible to induce a personally profound, spiritual experience with the use of mushrooms. I have to admit, his experiment was a little shoddy, but I don’t think I even need a scientific experiment to convince me that there’s some sort of truth to Pahnke’s theory. All you have to do is talk to a handful of people who have taken LSD, and the majority of them will probably describe the same sort of time-warping, body-transcending, connected-to-the-universe type of experience.
Granted, I tend to think that a transcendental experience you’ve worked for through meditation or prayer or three months backpacking on the Appalachian trail is probably going to have a longer-lasting and more profound effect on you than a few hours of tripping, but what do I know? In the new Steve Jobs biography by Walter Isaacson, Jobs says “Taking LSD was a profound experience, one of the most important things in my life. LSD shows you that there’s another side to the coin, and you can’t remember it when it wears off, but you know it.”
Of course, not everyone who takes psychedelics will have what they consider to be spiritual experiences, but isn’t it kind of weird that religious experiences that usually take people years of meditation or prayer to reach can be achieved just by swallowing a pill?
It makes me wonder if religious feelings are just chemical reactions within our brains. There are some scientists who think this might be the case. Mystical experiences, they say, may be triggered by the serotonin system, which affects the part of the brain involving emotions and perceptions. Psychedelic drugs simply activate the same receptor.
So what does this mean? If my feelings and experiences – the things that I thought made me more than just biology – are produced by chemicals in my body?
What am I exactly? Just a bunch of chemical reactions?
And yet… I am ME. Somehow those outnumbered cells, those atoms of mostly empty space, they came together and created an ecosystem that is aware of herself. Pretty amazing, don’t you think? Not only that, this Eva Ecosystem has, a few times in her life, (and without the use of psychedelic drugs), had fleeting feelings of connectedness to all the other ecosystems of the world, including the greatest ecosystem: the earth itself. I wouldn’t classify any of these as full-on spiritual experiences, but more like the stirrings of one. And maybe they were triggered by serotonin, but that doesn’t mean they they weren’t real, or that I didn’t experience something profound in that moment.
After all, a seizure can be triggered by strobe lights, but only if the person has epilepsy to begin with. The triggers for spiritual experiences might be chemical, but maybe the experience itself occurs because these truths have been there all along, underneath the surface of everyday existence.
Who are we? What are we? What is the human experience all about? These questions are so mysterious and complicated we will never know the answers. But we’re not “just” a home for microorganisms or “only” a biological bag of chemical reactions. We are these things, yes, and yet, somehow, we are so much more. That’s pretty spiritual, if you ask me.
P.S. I’ve been thinking about how I can change this blog from being just about me into something more. Would people be interested in reading more math and science stuff from a liberal arts perspective?
P.P.S. To read more about microorganisms or religion in the brain: