Monday, February 10, 2020


Researching for published thought about the experience of the Holy, what its physical cause or result might be, and whether such an experience can be "called" or prepared for, can quickly spread out into so many side issues that the original goal is lost.  Yet they seem relevant, valuable clues.  Next to my reading chair, a tottering stack of possibly useful articles is waiting to be read.  So far, this one linked below has been the most valuable.  First, it includes clinical confirmations of biological molecular action and, second, it identifies those molecules.  Third,  it accepts new emotional knowledge and thinking.  Fourth, it accepts knowledge that is in the unconscious.

In addition to the stages of human development that I've time-lined in other posts, the paper introduces the period of "childhood amnesia" between ages 2 and 5 which varies from one situation to another but appears to be the time when the "implicit memory" is developed in the subconscious.  I've been talking about this without the binary these writers introduce: the implicit memory which the pattern of the world, held in the unconscious; and the explicit memory which is one's conscious and accessible account of something that happened.  One can affect the other, often linked by sensory memory as in the famous "madeleine" trope.  Both are flexible, changeable, altered by experience though its more difficult for implicit memory.  Writers, actors and therapists know about this and use the concepts without naming them.

Quoted here is a frank, simple declaration that a "thought" state is controlled by a molecule, no longer a preposterous idea.  I saw the two realms of physiology and brain function linked.  "Most recently, both long-term memory storage and its underlying synaptic plasticity have been found to be mediated by a prion-like transregulational regulator, the CPEB3 (cytoplasmic polyadenylation element-bindiing protein )."  The earlier work that found the link is in the references of the article.  

We're used to thinking about "protein" as a diet ingredient, so it will take a bit of adjustment to remember that protein is a class of molecules that are created according to the directions of DNA.  The difference between implicit and explicit memory seems to be related to the production of proteins.  Implicit memory is flexible to some degree but requires the body to create new molecules in order to record new memory.  Thus it is harder to change and takes time.  The example given is learning a musical instrument, moving the struggle to remember small things by transferring them into habit.  Extrinsic memory may reorganize the molecular records, but will not involve the creation of new molecules.  These ideas are so new and counter to accepted folk understanding that we can hardly absorb them.  Nor does anyone really know how the memories are sorted and assigned.

A convincing example of behavior controlled by molecules is that of the "romantic" life of prairie voles, meadow voles, and mountain voles, which are separated by small DNA variations that have been conserved because of suiting their environments.  Experiments with voles using dopamine blockers and other chemical interference has markedly changed their ways of pair bonding and parenting, which are essential human characteristics that have been considered "emotional" -- meaning not connected to biological factors, all psychology.

What we're talking about is how the tinkertoy structures of molecules can stick cells together in patterns, how they can get through portals in the cell walls to interact with each other, how they support "play" as the main way to acquire skills.  The essay spends time making suggestions about trauma and PTSD, but I won't go into that.  The possible conflict between intrinsic and extrinsic memory is also mentioned, but this essay is a review of interrelated ideas that will be explored and expanded very much in time.

The ideas are so fascinating that it's easy to forget that the point for this blog is whether an experience of the Holy -- that is, intense and meaningful moments -- can transform lives and whether certain lives make such moments more likely.  Obviously, at least one's explicit memory will either preserve or deny the moment, according to the culture's attitude.  But maybe it also changes one's implicit memory, what this paper calls "IdN" (which is uncomfortably close to Indian and a bit confusing), which means the unconscious belief of how life is structured.  Surely we have reports of lives changed by miraculous appearances or intense experiences like near-death.  

That this should be caused by the manufacture of molecules is deflating and yet takes us closer to realizing how interwoven everything in existence can be.  One of our most powerful thoughts in a world exploded by deep space and eternal time is that we are atomically composed of stardust scattered at the explosion of the first universe.  The image of a God stooping to form us of mud into little dolls can be put aside as metaphor.  The idea of virtue translating to a better existence elsewhere is a little harder to change.  Jesus managed to make it stick for a few people for a couple of millennia.  But we aren't detecting an elsewhere.

If the molecules of transcendent experience are ever found, they might be from the family of catecholans, the stress and danger molecules, or from the dopamines, the safety and bliss molecules.  Or both at once, and maybe that's what makes the person feel so exalted, so connected to everything, so open to contradiction.  There are many felt emotions of either or even both at once that are mentioned in the stories of the religious.

Religion that is organized into institutions often suffocates the Holy by prescribing, suppressing, and redefining.  To look at exalted experience as a biologically supported moment is to escape all the authority figures who want to control people.  One can only hope that people burned at the stake are flooded with extreme molecules that transcend the neuron messages of pain. Lives changed by "lightning seeking ground" may change others around them and even whole cultures if they are able to convey them.

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