The Jaina Doctrine of Karma And The Science Of Genetics ► [8.3] Spirituality (Combination Of Spirit And Karma Śarīra) And Genes ► Consciousness and Genes

Posted: 26.10.2009

Our brains are bombarded with information every second of every minute of the day, day in and day out. There is the data we receive from the outside world through our senses: sights, sounds, smells, tastes and touches. And then there is the news that one part of the brain receives from other parts of the brain: Memories, feelings, thoughts and dreams. This is consciousness our awareness of our surroundings and our selves. It is at once both the common place and the most mysterious of all life processes.

Our aspect of consciousness has puzzled Philosophers, theologians, metaphysicists, psychologists and biologists for centuries and probably will continue to do so for many more. Sometimes called the mind-body problem, it boils down to this: Can consciousness (soul or spirit) be explained scientifically? Rane decarts "I think therefore I am" - who believed that the mind and the body our distinct substances that communicate through the pineal gland, which he believed was the seat of the soul. By a scientifically explanation i.e. one that can be expressed in terms of the basic principles of chemistry and physics. Proponents of this view often are called "materialists" because they believed that all mental processes can ultimately be accounted for by a few basic physical laws. Most scientists are materialists.

Other thinkers simply proclaim that the origins consciousness are too difficult to be solved with our present knowledge. So far so good for Scientist Edelman's theory: consciousness links the physical senses to the emotions through widely distributed brain networks. But that still leaves the critical question of how those emotions are generated, what is that actually makes us feel happy, sad, excited or anxious? This is where the monoamines and the VMAT2 gene come to the fore. The monoamines are the biochemical mediators of emotions and values. They are what make us feel. But monoamines are not freely available to the brain, like a gift, they first need to be wrapped up and unwrapped. That is where the VMAT2 gene plays a critical role.

Wrapping up the monoamines is hard work. This is where the vesicular monoamine transporter encoded by VMAT2 enters the picture. The VMAT2 transporter is a long, snakelike molecule that weaves in and out of the vesicular membrane. The head and tail of VMAT2 are both securely tucked inside the veside. The body crosses the membrane twelve times to form six coils running from inside to outside and back again. At each juncture with the membrane there is a trans-membrane helix, a tight spiral of amino acids that fits perfectly into its slippery, greasy oil, once the monoamines are packed into vesides, they sit there, completely shielded by the vesicular membrane, waiting for something to happen.

Like Ari, Tomas is under the influence of monoaminergic drug, in this case cocaine, cocaine releases dopamine, the brains reward chemicals. Although dopamine and serotonin are chemically similar, there are big differences in what they do? Dopamine makes people feel good rather than just not bad, sociable rather than not just hostile. If serotonin is the brains stick, dopamine is its carrot. How could such a temporary change in brain chemistry have such long lasting consequences? It is because the psilocybin made young question the one thing that he, like all of us, depends on most in life: his consciousness. Without consciousness there would be no life as we know it. We would not know who we are or where we are going? Yet we take our consciousness for granted. It is automatic and effortless, like breathing. Only when it suddenly stops working and goes haywire do we realize what an incredible gift it is?

The integration between primary and higher consciousness allows us to remember the present. And this is where VMAT2 enters the picture. VMAT2 controls the flow of monoamines with in the brain.[67] As the Buddhist meditate, they consciously attempt to clear their minds of thoughts and emotions. To do so, they send signals through the thalamus to the cortex, the ceat of will. As more and more of the brain's energy is directed towards this area, output to other region is decreased through the process that neurobiologists call deaf fermentation. It would be like simultaneously turning on all the air conditioners in a house; the flow of power to the other appliances would be decreased.

Based on this experiment and other lines of evidence, Persinger believes that the biological basis of all spiritual and mystical experience is due to spontaneous firing of the temporo-parietal region - highly focal microseigures without any obvious motor effects. He calls such episodes transient and theosizes that they occur in everybody to some extent. Exactly how often and how strongly is determined by a mix of genes, environment and experience. The main effect of such transients is to increase communication between the right and left temporoparietal areas, leading to a brief confusion between the sense of self and the sense of others. The outcome, he says, is a sense of presence that people interpret as a God, spirit or other mystical being. This is why feelings of spirituality are a matter of emotions rather than intellect. No book or sermon can teach one person to use a different monoamine transporter or another to ignore the signals emanating from his limbic system. It is our genetic make up that helps to determine how spiritual we are? We don't know God, we feel him.

Where did "God gene" come from? At first that might seem like a question of faith or Philosophy rather than science. But the actual answer is quite obvious. They came from our parents. Who inherited them from their ancestors. Those ancestors received them from their predecessors, and so on down the evolutionary line to the very beginnings of life on earth, over the ages, of course, the genes evolved. At every step, the genes that helped their owners survive and reproduce were most likely to be passed on to the next generation. Genes that do not successfully accomplish this do not survive in succeeding generations. If the organism in which such genes resided did not have offsprings, the genes soon would be lost from the population, discarded in the dustbin of failed evolutionary experiments. Only the genes that promoted our post survival and reproduction are still with us today.[68]

The scientific method of course is based on observation, experimentation and replication - methods that exclude most religious phenomena from consideration. There is no way for objectively test, for example, whether the consciousness continues after death or whether God listens to our prayers. There is no MRI or CAT scan for the human soul. It is therefore not surprising that many scientist regard religion with suspicion. First it is essential to realize that there is nothing intrinsically theistic or atheistic about postulating a specific genetic and biochemical mechanism for spirituality. If God does exist, he would need a way for us to recognize his presence. In deed many religious believers have interpreted the brain scan experiments of Persinger. Ramchandran and Newberg as supporting the existence of deity; why else, they ask, would we have a "God module" prewired in the brain. Science can tell us whether there are God genes but not whether there is a God. Spiritual experiences, like all experiences, must at some level be interpreted by biologically constructed brains.

The experiment implies that it is possible to strengthen one's sense of spirituality by practicing it - an idea that has been stressed by every great spiritual leader from Buddha to Gāndhī from Muhammada to Martīna Luthara king Jr. from Jesus to Bishop Ruisa. We have no say over the exact group of genes that we inherit; whether we have A, C or an A at the critical position in VMAT2 (God gene), the genes of a Tenkai or of a Hanibal Lecter is purely a matter of chance. What we do with our spiritual genes, whoever is very much upto us. Spirituality is based in consciousness, religion in cognition. Spirituality is universal, where as cultures have their own forms of religion. It is argued that the most important contrast is that spirituality is genetic while religion is based on culture, traditions, beliefs and ideas. It is in other words, mimetic. This is one reason why spirituality and religion have such differing impacts on individual life and society.

The idea that spirituality is inherited is not new. A Tungus Shaman Cited in Joseph Campbell's the masks of God says, "A person cannot become a sharman if there have been no sharmans in his sib". As we have seen from twin studies, self-transcendence, a quantifiable measure of spirituality, is partially inherited. At least one of the God gene VMAT2, appears to code for a protein that controls the ebb and flow of monoamines, brain chemicals that play a key role in emotions and consciousness.

The fact that spirituality has a genetic component implies that evolved for a purpose. No matter how selfish a gene is, it still needs a human being as a carrier to perpetuate itself. There is now reasonable evidence that spirituality is in fact beneficial to our physical as well as mental health. Faith may not only make people feel better. It may actually make them better people. Are we condemned to endlessly repeat the said mistakes of the past? It is believed that understanding the difference between spirituality and religion gives us another tool in offering hope for the future. For while our spirituality may be engraved to a degree in our DNA. We can charge, re interpret and reconsider the mems written or the scrolls of our religious history.[69]

Footnotes:
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Doctoral Thesis, JVBU