Friday, January 10, 2020


An intriguing but only indicated issue in Porges' work was how it is that something happens to convert mechanical waves of air hitting the eardrum into electrochemical nerve messages the brain can understand.  This is a rather specific example of the major philosophical problem of how the world outside the skin can be converted into internal thought.  Porges suggested a gizmo or organelle that did the translation since we know that some people lose this ability -- or the closely related ability to make the impact-to-code change but not in a way that results in intelligible words.

Much of brain research is based on lesions:  that is, if something is damaged, the consequence indicates that's what the bit actually did. There are two kinds of code messaging in the body.  One is the electrochemical "wiring" of nerves for which Porges has had special interest.  His wife, Sue Carter, has studied the molecules in the blood and lymph that circulate in the tubing of liquids. She is a behavioral neuroendocrinologist, the expert on prairie voles who discovered that they inherit faithfulness, an amazing phenomenon.  (She is the present head of the Kinsey Institute.)

"A hormone is any member of a class of signalling molecules, produced by glands in multicellular organisms, that are transported by the circulatory system to target distant organs to regulate physiology and behaviour."  (Wikipedia)

We are accustomed to speaking of hormones in terms of sexuality and can name male/female molecules, but there are in fact hundreds of hormones, each with its protein recipe in a gene.  Scientists have just now discovered a new class of molecules that respond to pressure or distention.  Below are some highly technical definitions that I'm just learning.  Then I'll pick up on the real world experiences that they explain.

"PIEZO2 is a mechanosensitive cation channel that has a key role in sensing touch, tactile pain, breathing and blood pressure. Here we describe the cryo-electron microscopy structure of mouse PIEZO2, which is a three-bladed, propeller-like trimer that comprises 114 transmembrane helices (38 per protomer)."  (Nature)

"Piezos are large transmembrane proteins conserved among various species, all having between 24 and 36 predicted transmembrane domains. 'Piezo' comes from the Greek 'piesi,' meaning 'pressure. ' The PIEZO2 protein has a role in rapidly adapting mechanically activated (MA) currents in somatosensory neurons."  (Wikipedia)

Here's a link to "Feel the Force", an article by Amber Dance in Nature that explains that Piezos are ion channels, which means considering ions.

"An atom becomes an ion when it gains or loses electrons. ... Positively charged ions are called cations (pronounced CAT-ions). The ions that are formed when an atom gains electrons are negatively charged because they have more electrons in the electron cloud than protons in the nucleus."  (Oxford)

Pliezos are the reacting message molecules that make code when the skin is pushed or stretched, the eardrum is being hit by sound waves, or the body is changing position.  They are vital to our sense of living at such a deep level (literally!) that they are bound up in sex and religion.  Blood responses of swelling lips and genitals, tissue reports when rocking or bowing, the feeling of being hugged hard, are recorded as emotion and encoded in the brain, where they become registers of sound or stroking or compression as our bodies translate what is outside the skin to what is inside the skin, inside the mind.

When we talk about the senses, this is the one that is so pervasive that it gets left out.  It surely must have been one of the early kindling of the baby in the womb as it feels the envelopment of muscle and hears the sounds carried by the mother's tissue and fluid around it.  When a baby is tightly swaddled, even the baby wallaby joeys rescued from Australian fire, it is not just for warmth but also to stimulate pliezos to signal safety.  

When the human baby is born the mother will stroke, cleanse, caress, kiss, rock and talk to the infant, informing the pliezos and creating a virtual womb that includes mother and child.  This embracing relationship is the source of brain pattern development and the beginning of the ability to attach to (love) other human beings which grows through the rest of life to include family, community, and other larger environments until potentially the planet is included.  

This is "religious", to be emphasized and explored by activities that can involve pliezo-impressed actions like clapping, kneeling, whirling or walking.  This is a matter of practice rather than belief in some proposal.  Porges spent time in Asia learning about "Ancient Rituals, Contemplative Practices, and Vagal Pathways" which is the title of his key essay.  It's available on the Internet.  Pressure sensitive pliezos are only one of the senses that are established through the vagal nerve/brain system so that the brain supports social engagement.  He is particularly interested in how this contributes to calming and a feeling of safety.  He returns again and again to the idea of the mother's lullaby, her assurance, through her voice penetrating the infant's ear, often accompanied by rocking.

The tiny but still-physical specialized appearance of pliezo ion channel molecules is almost Rube Goldberg, though the early studies are pretty vague.  There are appear to be three "rotors" that somehow open and shut and turn, but what this makes happen is unclear.  Mostly what we know is that if the responsible gene is "knocked out" of specialized mice, they no longer feel pressure.  It's possible that other pliezos are related to the perception of pain and that if we could remove or disable them, we could help prevent suffering.  There ought to be clues for deafness.  A connection to the development and maintenance of bones means a possible answer to astronaut's losing bone density in space.  There may be answers to questions about sickle cell anemia.

More immediately, including thought about affecting pressure and position of the body when designing intervals of ritual or contemplation that are meant to call peace and safety, or when expressing intimacy with another human or even another species (all mammals have pliezos) this ability enriches our lives.  Decades ago in the PNWD of the UUA, there was a New Age sort of clergyman who joined the "Church of Venus" endorsing love.  Member stripped and lay on platforms where pretty girls came around with feather dusters to tickle and stroke them for purposes of meditating.  This became a scandal that ended the man's marriage and ministry, but he was a clinical psychologist by training and simply moved as far away as possible and resumed more conventional counselling, or so I assume.  That takes the ideas about pliezos a little too far or so I assume.

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