Blogging my thoughts: Lighting up the Thoughts of the Mind
Blogging my thoughts: Lighting up the Thoughts of the Mind by Peter Krey
Reading about optogenetics in the New York Science Times for today (April 22, 2014) I read an article entitled, “Brain Control in a Flash of Light” by James Gorman. Reading it I had to think of the lightning flash of that preceded Luther’s entry into the monastery. (The incident took place before the Reformation on July 2, 1505 near the village of Stotternheim in Germany.)
Dr. Karl Dreisseroth and his team devised a practical way to turn neurons in the brain on and off with light. Is it far-fetched to think that the lightning strike that came so close to Luther that it knocked him down, also affected Luther, in this case, turning his mind on to ultimate questions? I’ve read how Karl Marx thought that that lightning flash began a change of mind not only in Luther but in all of Europe and I have somehow felt myself, that Luther’s whole Reformation came out of one flash of insight, that was not only intellectual but went way down to the enlightenment of his affects as well.
Dreisseroth talks of people with psychoses having a different reality from our own (New York Science Times, page D4). He describes bipolar disorder as “’exuberance, charisma, love of life, and yet how destructive’; of depression, [so] ‘crushing – it can’t be reasoned with.’” (D4) But what about on the positive side, that is, a brain that reaches a new level of integration and insight through an encounter with God? A Psalm speaks of God in terms of “the Light in which we see light.” (Psalm 36:9) Often we are locked with our thinking in the pathological, while we remain oblivious to the wholesome, the wonderful level of a new maturity in life. St. Paul on the road to Damascus and perhaps Luther, on his way back from home to Erfurt, experienced something along these lines.
Now to delve more deeply into the article: various laboratories experimented with using light to control brain cells. Needed in that process are proteins they call “opsins.” “When light shines on an opsin, it absorbs a photon and changes.” (D4) Smuggling opsin genes into nerve cells caused no harm. (D5) They found that one particular opsin called channelrhodopsin-2 “could be used to turn on mammalian neurons with blue light.” (D5) Dreisseroth used microbial opsins to get those neurons to respond strongly to light. With that Dreisseroth’s team could switch the neurons on and off.
Then working in his laboratory they took a step beyond optogenetics making the whole brain transparent in a method they have called “Clarity.” It cannot be used for living brains because a chemical called hydrogel has to be infused into the brain tissue, “which leaves the brain not only transparent, but also still available for bio-chemical tests.” (D5)
Dreisseroth’s aim continues to be helping people with severe mental illness or brain diseases “and he recently proposed ways that optogenetics, Clarity, and other techniques may be turned to this aim.” D5) It turns out that optogenetics is a crucial tool in understanding brain functions. “Clarity, on the other hand, is an aid to anatomical studies, basic mapping of structure, which, he says, is as important to understand as activity.” (D5) When as a psychiatrist he administered electro convulsive therapy (electric shock therapy) a general seizure results, in which the whole brain is disrupted. “’Within a few minutes the whole person comes back. Where does it come back from? From the structure,’ he said.” (D5)
It is interesting the way Dreisseroth speaks of the whole person coming back but then uses the pronoun “it” for merely the structure of the brain. Perhaps the mind envelopes the whole person, while the brain is just the seat of that source.
When Dreisseroth speaks of encountering a whole different reality in a person experiencing a psychosis then he needs to be completely cognizant that we all agree on a conventional, everyday level of reality which we call normal. This kind of scientific work, however, shows how there are deeper realities that go far beyond the everyday level of reality we accept as normalcy.
When a St. Paul or Luther experience the source of light, then perhaps they were treated to a shock therapy for a more wholesome reality through and after which the reality of the presence of the Divine has to be proclaimed. This ultimate reality, filled with healing love and compassion can also fill a psychotic person with healing light.
“Clarity” now for a live brain may provide a physical analogy to enlightenment, say of the Buddha, or the transfiguration of Jesus Christ. The transfiguration of the person or mind, if “mind” is understood as enveloping the whole person and the whole person’s intellect and affects as well are taken to be in the mind. When that mind becomes transparent, then perhaps the source of light can shine through a person.
Recently I wrote about the light of the eyes, as it was understood in Biblical times. The light of the eyes, but really the light of the mind and all its wonderful functioning cannot hold a candle to “the Light in which we see light.” The whole verse from Psalm 36 also includes affects and more: “For with you is the fountain of life and in your light we see light.” That living light is the source of our being (structure) and consciousness (functioning and activity).
In blogging my thoughts here, I go all the way into opsins, photons, optogenetics, and “Clarity,” because Luther said that we cannot go into the flesh deeply enough. I first interpreted his sense of the word “flesh” to mean that we cannot go into everything concerning what it means to be human being deeply enough. In the words of Cicero, “I am a human being and I consider nothing that is human alien to me.” But here I interpret “flesh” as delving into this completely physical and natural study of the brain as a foray into theology.
Now Dreisseroth maintains that one cannot reason with depression. (D5) Of course not. But we should not discount the talking cure, because insights enlighten the brain with optogenetic potential. And the encounter with the omniscient, compassionate, and wholly loving God, can bring a healthy person back from a “divine structure” into the wholeness of a new maturity, a fully functioning and fulfilling life. But God also has to encounter those like Dr. Dreisseroth, who go into a mind completely transparent or enlightened by the living Light of God to heal not only people with psychoses, but also as many of us who are walking around in an everyday reality unenlightened by the real presence of the One who “created the sun, moon, and the shining stars; for God commanded and these lights were created.” (Psalm 148:3 and 5)
 Check out Ira Steinman’s book Treating the Untreatable. I relate a story from it in my Sermon of Feb. 8, 2009 called, “Not just the Healthy, the sick are saved too.” Here of course, I take the neuroscientific approach of this article.