Wednesday, February 12, 2020


As the "keeper" of the family photo albums, I've done my best to organize and interpret them.  I was startled to see that in mid-life photos of my paternal grandmother (1871 - 1953) she had a major goiter, the neck growth that results from a thyroid not getting enough iodine, a common problem on the prairie until salt began to be iodized.  It affects the heart and is what helped to kill Charlie Russell, the artist.  My grandmother was in trouble until a pioneering woman taught her to use iodine pills and the family decided to move to Portland where there is much environmental iodine, but after that she was always considered fragile.  I never knew why.

Before thinking about goiter, I had been tracing other family smashups that might have a genetic element.  And just as I was congratulating myself for being on the high prairie where it is relatively alkaline, compensating for a Scots-Irish genome developed in the acid peaty islands of those wet countries, I was forced to think of the epigenomic consequences of thyroid malfunction.  They would be on my father's side, but most likely to affect the younger female next child and her descendants.  My grandmother in her last years suffered from depression.  Her daughter in her last years was demented and her granddaughter is in early-stage Alzheimers.  The great-granddaughter shows no signs of damage so far.  It's all speculation, of course.  I don't run a lab and am not a biochemist.  But it is strong evidence of genes as processes affected by generations and environment rather than the conventional idea of beads on a string, one for eye color, one for height, and so on.

This article linked below is an example of the complexity of something as simple as the need for iodine in the diet. I'm highly interested in a new "discipline" called "biological structure" which is not about individual substances but how they interact.  The constraints of discipline "boxes" were first breached by the necessity of trans-disciplines and now prompt the creation of new disciplines to organize studies and put people in touch with each other.  This linked article is an example.  The subject is the moving tinkertoy construction of the proteins that constitute and operate us, as dictated by the compromise between the genome and the environment pushing back on it.  They are highly interactive, to the point of being a tumult.

This is the "story": the thyroid gland in the neck is composed of little pouches called follicles that hold "the coiloid" where thryoglobulin accumulates until it is processed by the "endoplasmic reticulum" doubling each molecule.  Then the molecules enter the bloodstream and join iodide (I-).  

"Iodide (I–) in the bloodstream around the follicles is actively taken up by the follicular cells through a cell-membrane protein, the Na+/ I– symporter4, and then transported into the colloid. Here, I– is oxidized to iodine by the thyroperoxidase (TPO) enzyme, using hydrogen peroxide produced by dual oxidase proteins, and then covalently incorporated into tyrosine residues in thyroglobulin in the colloid. This produces biosynthetic intermediates known as 3-monoiodotyrosine (MIT) and 3,5-diiodotyrosine (DIT) bound to thyroglobulin. MIT then reacts with DIT to form triiodothyronine, or two DITs react to produce thyroxine, still bound to thyroglobulin."  There's more, but I'll spare you.  You can go to the link.

What does this have to do with the Holy?  The idea of an experience of the Holy being tied to some genetic capacity that can be isolated and prescribed in a pill has a very dark side.  Even the familiar notion of a "bad trip" with "transcendence", as though a drug drop has gone wrong, is not as bad nor as complicated as what can get out of hand when people think they are creating some superpower by ingesting a "shazam" pill.  It's a bit like becoming convinced that you can fly and jumping off the roof to prove it.

Consider what it would mean if the Holy were linked to a molecule or process in the human body.  If it were an identified material, it would be a drug, like Ecstacy, MDMA.  Takes twenty minutes until you want to hug everyone, drops barriers to intimacy for six hours or so, and then it ends.  "Pay up" in addled hormone levels during recovery, much less the inadvisable things done while under the influence like getting pregnant.  But there ARE pills and practices that will make you think you're touching the Sacred.  A nice source of income comes from frustrated suburbanites over to clever jungle shamans who can tell which vine to cut and boil.  It's plain that to some degree material biochemistry can make a person receptive to what is far beyond the ordinary..

The phenomenon does not fit very well with the Christian/Cartesian set of ideas, so it has to be seen as supernatural.  It is marked by expansion of consciousness, not by naming it.  However, it does fit with the New Anthropology defining humans as manifestations of the interwoven DNA of all living things and the loss of individual borders in order to merge with the universe.  Maybe the change in the paradigm is the only real change.

The rational scientific understanding of religious experience might be defined as identity from rational and conscious self-reflection. "I am a Christian." Or whatever. This fits with formal historical theologies as espoused by institutions.  Yet loss of consciousness of the self might be in "flow" as in the phenomenon of being so totally absorbed in something that it becomes the only thing present in the mind at that moment.  Or sleep to the degree that it's undreaming and invites no spirits.  Or something called "dissociation" when the world is so terrifying and indecipherable that the mind simply leaves, maybe into what feels like a silvery parallel universe and maybe into syncope, or fainting.  Some of these states can be detected by technology.

None of these quite answer to a description of the transcendent consciousness of reported holy experience.  Consequences do not seem to be physical but more like moral and meaningful.  An "evil" version of this might be the opposite, a cancellation of identity, relationship, or consequences, being lost.  It would be interesting to read the literature about "possession."  I'll pass.  But I keep all the evidence, even as I keep family photo albums.  

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