Just Connect

When we reach out to life, we're following an eternal wisdom that begins at a cellular level, suggests Eric Harrison.

I was recently talking with a psychologist friend about spiritual values such as detachment, calming the mind and becoming a dispassionate observer, and how these old moral injunctions are currently reappearing under the guise of "mindfulness" and the therapies of acceptance and forgiveness. Then he made a forthright comment. "It's stupid to regard detachment as an ultimate spiritual virtue," he said. "It's attachment that makes people happy."

I think my friend is right. Detachment, the ability to stand back and coolly appraise any situation, is only useful as a staging point for intelligent action. Comforting as it may be to sit back and contemplate the world from a distance, we know we'll get more satisfaction from what we commit ourselves to. We become happy by engaging with things we find valuable - relationships, work, interests or beliefs. If we fail to make those important connections, we feel lost and confused, and can easily finish up playing unsatisfying roles in the lives of others.

We need to connect well, to something or someone, or we wither away and die. Furthermore, this seems to be a universal biological law. Darwin was struck by what he called the "superabundance" of Nature. By this he meant that every species of plant and animal produces far more progeny than can possibly survive. Only the strongest or cleverest worm or dragonfly or wolf will mate and bear young. Only the luckiest seed will ever strike root and grow to bear fruit. The vast majority of plants and animals will fail to connect, and so are destined to be food for those that do.

Darwin also found that although Nature is profligate, it is also "conservative". Nature generates millions of different species, but it also conserves what has worked at earlier stages of evolution. Rather than building each new species from scratch, as God was assumed to have done 6000 years ago, it takes the mechanisms that are useful in the metabolic processes of an amoeba, for example, and adapts them for use in the carrot and the giraffe and in us.

This means that the law "connect or die" is as true for single celled plants or animals as it is for you and me. It is also true of each of the individual cells in our bodies, which effectively operate like semi-autonomous creatures within us. Whether we are talking about cellular, psychological or social organisations, the stronger our connections, the more we thrive, and vice versa. We have a powerful inbuilt motivation to connect.

Of course, we rarely manage this to our full satisfaction, any more than does the average dragonfly. It is a Darwinian battleground out there. If you wonder why, after years of false starts, you still can't find your soulmate in a world of nearly seven billion people, then spare a thought for the cells of your immune system.

Each day your bones produce millions of so called "B cells". Each virgin cell is utterly unique, and is designed to connect with only a single one of the millions of possible bacteria or fungi that could conceivably invade your body.

Let's now consider a single B cell, whom we'll call "Brenda", since she really is an individual. Brenda waits in the lymph glands with millions of her sisters, in the hope that one day her prince will come. In fact, if he doesn't arrive within five days, she will die, useless and unwanted, suffering the common fate of old maids everywhere.

However, if she hears the glorious news that his ship has arrived, and that her one-and-only has disembarked into the bloodstream, she becomes instantly pregnant. She gives birth to a clone line of thousands of daughter cells, who produce daughters in their turn. These produce millions of tiny identical granddaughters, the so called "antibodies" which are all in the shape of a "Y". These antibodies flood into the bloodstream, and the little hands at the tips of the Y grab on to the specific pathogen they were born to meet and kill.

I will spare you the details of the subsequent slaughter. Suffice to say that once the battle is over, Brenda has escaped Death Row and has attained what must feel like B cell immortality. Unlike the millions of her virgin sisters who died after only five days, she and her progeny now live on in a small population of cloned "memory" cells for perhaps 20 years or more. By connecting with her pathogen, Brenda became fully activated and so fulfilled her destiny. I'm sure that, in her own unicellular way, she would feel very happy about this.

Similarly, the cells in our brain must also connect or die. Brain cells, or "neurons" are typically long cells that communicate by sending an electrical signal down the length of their bodies to other cells. However, neurons don't physically touch each other. The signal has to be ferried by chemical transmitters across a tiny liquid gap to the next cell. This gap is called a "synapse" which literally means "embrace" in the original Greek. Brain cells, in other words embrace, or grasp on to each other, across fluid filled synapses.

Brain cells, like virgin B cells, are extraordinarily specific in their job descriptions. Each one may respond to only a single sound frequency, or shade of colour, or to a particular angle of a line. As a result, they lie dormant until they are activated by the appropriate stimulus. If this doesn't happen, they die, like unused muscles. If they are rarely activated, their tips visibly shrivel and they become, to use an expressive technical term, "depressed".

In fact, different populations of brain cells are continually competing with each other for survival. For example, each of us is born with the ability to speak the sounds of every world language. Within a few years, however, the cells relating to the sounds of our native tongue become strong and exquisitely sensitive, and those relating to say Swahili or Inuit fade away. A Japanese baby can easily distinguish the sound of "r" from "l", but an adult can't, since their language doesn't require it. From infancy onwards, the brain is continually pruning out unused connections and strengthening others.

Neurons become strong by creating and maintaining alliances. The more often certain cells embrace across a synapse, the stronger that connection becomes. Cells also embrace horizontally with similar cells, and with distant cells, by firing their electrical charges in the same frequency. To be strong and healthy, cells need to form alliances with thousands of others, or they lose out on in the Darwinian battleground.

Darwin argued that Nature conserves and redesigns its working mechanisms, right through from individual cells to human beings. This means we can ask an interesting question. Scientists talk about brain cells being either "depressed" or "excited" depending on how often and how strongly they fire. So can we also think of a cell as being happy or sad? Is an underused cell with few friends miserable? And what about cells with strong alliances that are frequently activated? Do they feel happy about what they do?

If Darwin is correct, we can make a reasonable guess. The brain cells embrace each other so enthusiastically because of chemicals they release into the synaptic fluid. These include dopamine, noradrenalin and serotonin, which are exactly the chemicals that we human beings avidly seek out, by fair means or foul. Without them, life would be stripped of meaning and we would probably do nothing at all.

When we take coffee, prozac, cocaine, aspirin or ecstasy, we use almost identical drugs to those that are found in the synapses. Of course, we also produce these chemicals naturally whenever we do what gives us pleasure. Dopamine, the "anticipation and reward" chemical, gives us enthusiasm and drive. Noradrenalin gives us physical energy and mental focus to execute our plans. Serotonin and the endorphins, on the other hand, make us feel contented and satisfied, after the stimulating drugs have run their course.

I think we can be confident in saying that the active neurons enjoy their chemical bath. An active, focused and well used brain, richly connected to itself and the body, is likely to be a happy brain. The alternative for brain cells, and probably for us as well, is depression and death.

The sole purpose of neurons is to transmit messages. The vast majority of this work is done unconsciously to maintain the ongoing functioning of the mind. But if networks of neurons are particularly powerful and complex, they can communicate strong messages from the backblocks of the brain right through to the frontal lobes. They can triumph over all the other competing messages, and make their grand entrance into the theatre of consciousness. When this occurs, we consciously recognise particular sensations, thoughts or emotions.

Even sensations that do manage to become conscious tend to be fragile and transient. Very little of what we see and do remains in our mind by the end of the day. But if a message is strong enough to hold its place on stage for a minute or so, something remarkable can happen. We can become conscious of being conscious. We can know what we are doing and exactly how we are doing it.

In this state, time seems to slow down and detail stands out. Our bodies and minds can become very still and calm. We become aware of ourselves as dispassionate observers of our mental theatre. Meditators often strive for this state, and religious traditions praise it extravagantly.

Yet, valuable as this state is, we rarely stay here for long. Detachment can give us a remarkable degree of peace and self understanding, but instinctively we feel its limitations. Happiness can't come through detachment alone. It is far more likely to come from our day-by-day, hands-on activity. We are happy when we say "yes" to life, and feel in our guts that what we are doing is worth doing.

Eric Harrison has been running the Perth Meditation Centre since 1987 www.perthmeditationcentre.com.au