Molecules of Emotion


Molecules of EmotionThe Science Behind Mind-Body Medicine, New York: Scribner, 2003.

I came to know about Candace B. Pert through the mind-boggling film What the Bleep Do We Know!?

I found her presence markedly impressive and right away ordered her book. Molecules of Emotion is not only an extraordinary scientific study, but it also comes with much autobiographic content. Candace Pert had the courage to reveal many details from her life as a female scientist.

Since the 1970s Candace Pert persisted in her vision of finding molecular evidence for the functionality of our emotions, and our sexuality, and more generally for mindbody medicine, within the boundaries of modern science.

The book, if all that additional information was taken out, would be a research paper, too thin to fill a book. And it would probably miss its goal entirely. It’s this holistic and empathic approach, and needless to add that it’s an artistic approach as well, that makes this book so unique. And it shows that this scientist was actually a great human.

Actually Pert, together with the brilliant animations in the Bleep movie, made transparent how human sexuality works, and that it is not a mechanical abstract function, that it is not, an instinct or ‘drive’ as Sigmund Freud called it, but a direct outflow from our emotional predilections.

To give an example, how she explains this rather complex matter in a very readable, comprehensive way, let me put this quote:

If receptors are the first components of the molecules of emotion, then ligands are the second. The word ligand comes from the Latin ligare, ‘that which binds,’ sharing its origin with the word religion. Ligand is the term used for any natural or manmade substance that binds selectively to its own specific receptor on the surface of a cell. The ligand bumps onto the receptor and slips off, bumps back on, slips back off again. The ligand bumping on is what we call the binding, and in the process, the ligand transfers a message via its molecular properties to the receptor. Though a key fitting into a lock is the standard image, a more dynamic description of this process might be two voices—ligand and receptor— striking the same note and producing a vibration that rings a doorbell to open the doorway to the cell./24

Candace Pert’s project was since its humble beginnings in the 1970s very daring, as until now mainstream psychology treats emotions as ‘floating parameters’ that are hard to grasp by our reigning mechanistic science paradigm. Candace Pert gives a hint how this abstruse paradigm came about in the first place:

If psychological contributions to physical health and disease are viewed with suspicion, the suggestion that the soul – the literal translation of psyche—might matter is considered downright absurd. For now we are getting into the mystical realm, where scientists have been officially forbidden to tread ever since the seventeenth century. It was then that René Descartes, the philosopher and founding father of modern medicine, was forced to make a turf deal with the Pope in order to get the human bodies he needed for dissection. /18

But in her own words, her vision even went beyond. She did not just want to succeed in her personal research project, but desired to help bring about this huge paradigm shift to many scientists who are currently working on it. And she wanted this paradigm shift to expand also into medical science, so that the psychosomatic unity of body and mind are definitely recognized in medicine. In her own words:

My intention is to provide an understanding of the metaphors that express a new paradigm, metaphors that capture how inextricably united the body and the mind really are, and the role the emotions play in health and disease./17

Truly original, boundary-breaking ideas are rarely welcomed at first, no matter who proposes them. Protecting the prevailing paradigm, science moves slowly, because it doesn’t want to make mistakes. Consequently, genuinely new and important ideas are often subjected to nitpickingly intense scrutiny, if not outright rejection and revulsion, and getting them published becomes a Sisyphean labor./19

It is known from the film What the Bleep Do We Know how brilliantly Pert explained her research, how she could convey complex matters in a simple comprehensive way. And here is how she explained emotions under the particular angle of her research:

When I use the term emotion, I am speaking in the broadest of terms, to include not only the familiar human experiences of anger, fear, and sadness, as well as joy, contentment, and courage, but also basic sensations such as pleasure and pain, as well as the ‘drive states’ studied by the experimental psychologists, such as hunger and thirst. In addition to measurable and observable emotions and states, I also refer to an / assortment of other intangible, subjective experiences that are probably unique to humans, such as spiritual inspiration, awe, bliss, and other states of consciousness that we all have experienced but that have been, up until now, physiologically explained./131-132

Generally, her emphasis both in her research and her book is upon the psychosomatic unity of the mindbody. Let me put here two more quotes to come to an end of my review:

The body is the unconscious mind! Repressed traumas caused by overwhelming emotion can be stored in a body part, thereafter affecting our ability to feel that part or even move it./141

These recent discoveries are important for appreciating how memories are stored not only in the brain, but in a psychosomatic network extending into the body, particularly in the ubiquitous receptors between nerves and bundles of cell bodies called ganglia, which are distributed not just in and near the spinal cord, but all the way out along pathways to internal organs and the very surface of our skin. The decision about what becomes a thought rising to consciousness and what remains an undigested thought pattern buried at a deeper level in the body is mediated by the receptors. I’d say that the fact that memory is encoded or stored at the receptor level means that memory processes are emotion-driven and unconscious (but, like other receptor-mediated processes, can sometimes be made conscious)./143

To summarize, this highly readable book from an amazing scientist may scramble you up a bit, but this is a good thing to happen. The book is not a dry research report, but in the contrary reads like an adventure novel—the novel of a daring woman who has achieved much in her life. She has won the hearts of many people and through touching their hearts she has been able to put new seeds in their minds.

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