A BIOCHEMIST'S PATH TO NEUROREALISM

by Bruce E. Morton, Professor Emeritus, University of Hawaii School of Medicine

After obtaining tenure as a faculty biochemist at the University of Hawaii School of Medicine, I was at last free to decide the future direction of my life. Because of my background skills and my advanced training, the citizens of Hawaii had seen fit to keep me from earning my living by working in the fields, so to speak. Rather, they had provided me a life-time salary and a modest laboratory to do specialized work for them at the university. What was particularly challenging was that they were asking me, as a university professor, not only to teach their offspring what was known about the chemistry of life (biochemistry), but they were further asking me to use my abilities to find new ways to improve their own lot. Further, they implied that they didn't quite know what they needed and were trusting me to use my judgment in this regard. That is, they were asking me to work in whatever "field" I felt would be most likely to improve the human condition, and thus ultimately to benefit them. Hopefully, by doing so, I felt I could also repay the other U.S. citizens who had kindly contributed to my federally funded graduate and postdoctoral training.

Taking this responsibility seriously, I began intently looking for answers. I asked myself the following: "What do I think is the most significant problem facing humanity today (assuming I had no limitations and that I could do something practical)?" In response to this question, the area that attracted my attention was provided by information confronting us every day through the mass media. The "News" continually explodes with human conflict, suffering, and violence at all levels, from the intra-personal, to that between individuals, families, ideologies, cultures, nations, religions, and global alliances. For example, almost two of three U.S. marriages fail, usually in bitter conflict involving infants and children. Spouse abuse and other forms of domestic violence are rampant. Ten percent of U.S. children are said to have been hospitalized from child abuse. Twenty percent of U.S. adults are categorized as mentally ill, while almost half of the U.S. population has at least one bout with mental illness in their life. Violence appears to be increasing in intensity in parallel with the population explosion. More than half of all highway fatalities are due to intoxication. Drug abuse is wasting those who were the promise of entire nations. And this is only the tip of the iceberg.

To me, all of these interlinked societal problems represented a single theme: brain function. The brain, the most complex, least understood of all our bodily organs, is one of the last frontiers of ignorance. Yet, the brain is the mechanical device through which we are aware of our surroundings, and which determines how we personally respond to them. Thus, the brain literally is the central organ of human life. Because of this logic, my first conclusion was that the rest of my career would be dedicated to brain research.

Yet, how could I, a biochemist, even begin to approach such a subject?! I had no formal training regarding the brain at all. Surprisingly, this actually worked to my advantage in terms of ultimately developing an understanding of its nature. Those scientists who did study the brain were usually artificially segregated into the more than one hundred brain related sub disciplines, each remarkably unfamiliar with the accomplishments of the other. Furthermore, because of intense competition for limited research funds, scientists were being forced to become sub specialist experts who knew more and more about less and less. This appeared literally to be maintaining a vast ignorance about the big picture of life and especially mind among the conventionally trained and funded scientific community, our scientist leaders.

It was also helpful that the University of Hawaii, while very good, was not as competitive as the top ranked universities. As a result, I was encouraged, but fortunately not demanded to bring in governmental funding, along with its lucrative overhead to the university. This would have been required to do to keep a similar job at Harvard, for example. Also, had I been in such a position, I may have been forced to work on narrow, politically correct, often seemingly "fad", short-range topics in order for me to obtain extra mural funding needed to pay for part or all of my salary and that of my assistants. However, in Hawaii, I could slowly but surely continue my academic quest on behalf of the citizens, almost totally unhampered. One of the consequences of this freedom, was that I had to pay for many of my laboratory's small equipment and supply needs out of my own pocket. I was also greatly aided by some very dedicated unpaid student help volunteers, and also encouraged by far-sighted colleagues, and other professionals with insight.

I chose the subject of the emotions as a good brain research topic with which to begin my investigations. This was because: 1) emotions appeared to drive most human behavior, 2) drug seeking appeared to be a form of self medication to reduce unpleasant emotions, and 3) malfunctions in the production of emotions appeared to be source of the widespread mental illnesses. When I attempted to identify what emotions existed, I found almost as many different lists of emotions in the literature as there were authors writing about them. Furthermore, not only was it unknown what neurotransmitters were released to produce fear or anger, for example, but it was not even known what brain sites were responsible for their production. Those were truly the dark ages of the brain. It has been said that in the subsequent fifteen years, more was learned about the brain than had been discovered since the beginning of time.  Even after the recent "decade of the brain", this huge outpouring continues, yet in the absence of an adequate logic framework upon which to assemble it. Thus, the neuroscience literature remains a vast, published collection of un-assimilated, untapped treasures just waiting for recognition and integration into a living whole.

Fortunately for me, two powerful biochemical techniques appeared in the late 1970s. The first, using simple but elegant biochemistry, enabled the global visualization of regional brain activities in experimental animals, and later in humans, for the first time. The second made possible the mapping of the regional brain distributions of the receptors for the almost one hundred neurotransmitters known at that time. With these techniques, I began observing regional brain activities produced in experimental animals being subjected to conditions producing emotion associated behaviors of different kinds. I also set up a bank of frozen whole human brains, sliced into inch thick cross sections, for later investigations of neurotransmitter receptor alterations associated with several mental illnesses. Work was also begun in the lab which later led to the clarification of the mechanism of action of several key psychoactive compounds, yet unpublished . Around this time, I also began work designed to minimize brain damage due to cardiovascular injuries.

One of the problems a scientist faces when becoming a faculty member at a U.S. university is the following. Although highly educated in a subspecialty of science, they usually have received no formal training in education and often have not even taught a single course. Yet, they are expected to begin their university teaching in a proficient manner. For this and a number of other reasons, the early years of university employment can be quite stressful. In my case, each year the pressures of the fall semester precipitated within me what seemed to be a seasonal depressive disorder. While not incapacitating enough to cause me to seek medical aid, this was very unpleasant, both to myself and those around me. Every fall I tried to eradicate or at least cope with this distracting altered mental state. I did so by trying what turned out to be a couple of dozen self-help methods, ranging from conventional therapy, counseling, prayer, gestalt encounter groups, through Primal therapy, Rebirthing, and Holotrophic Breathwork, to Dianetics, Mental Physics, Silva mind control, est, Transcendental meditation, the Forum, and Theravada meditation. All around me, I saw impressive mental improvements and personal development occurring in individuals other than myself. Although each year my problem would finally lift, it returned again each fall. Meanwhile, I began to see many elements of commonality in these self realization, religious, and therapeutic traditions.

I later modified my laboratory orientation toward brain research and began to master the essentials of the many disciplines involved in Neuroscience. Then, I began a personal program, which I do not recommend to others, but which was part of my path to insights about the workings of the brain. This was a series of semi controlled auto experiments. In these, I systematically administered to myself graded doses of representative psychoactive agonists and antagonists of the large number of brain neurotransmitter receptor systems that are known to participate in consciousness. I would then enter a well equipped sound-proof experimental chamber and experience the mental consequences of the substance over the next several hours. While these psychoactive effects unfolded, I would record my subjective experience and objective (test based) observations on tapes or in note books for later assembly and analysis. I carefully tested about 40 different psychoactive compounds in this manner.

These experiments were extremely fruitful in a number of ways, but also personally dangerous. I accidentally overdosed myself on two separate occasions, but fortunately survived. In the process of this work, I developed an experiential view of brain system neuropsychopharmacology which I have found invaluable. Most of the compounds I tested produced direct and indirect effects which were very unpleasant, even frightening. However, some of them revealed critical clues to the mechanism of action of other important drugs. For example, I found that the many very characteristic subjective effects of marijuana, whose mechanism of action was unknown, were totally reproduced by 10 mg oral, muscimol, a well understood and highly specific agonist for the GABA-A receptor. For the prepared mind, the significance of this observation alone was immense.

Ultimately, I tested several of the 5-HT2a receptor agonists, all of which are hallucinogens. At low doses, I noticed much greater access than I usually had to my emotions and other mental phenomena that previously had been very difficult for me to experience. Normally, I had so little feelings that I had taken to jumping off cliffs in a hang glider for fun (setting an unofficial world cross-country distance record in 1975 as a consequence). With low doses of hallucinogens, I began to have impressive mental experiences resembling those I had seen in others not using drugs in the various self realization traditions I had pursued earlier. Simultaneously, I began to find relief from the annual "depressive" state which had plagued me for so long. Later, as I began increasing the hallucinogen dose, initially I began to suffer more and more emotional anguish until, at a critical dose I felt myself literally to be in the throws of death itself, an ancient experience which already had appropriately been labeled "Ego death". However, although an important system of my brain had been temporarily turned off by the drug to produce this Ego death, I wasn't dead. Instead, I had entered an altered state of consciousness, known as "transcendence". In the transcendent state, I felt as if I were in the presence of an awareness; of something much higher, purer, and wiser than my usual Ego based self.

After several awe invoking, often inspirational hours would pass, during which time I often took copious notes, I would finally fall asleep. Later, I would go over my notes and rediscover that I had been given some highly unusual insights that always turned out to be a powerful paradigm of the way something in the universe worked often with strong social implications. Yet, I did not know where each of these models had come from. I would write it out in detail and diagram its relationships. Then, I would spend weeks in the library searching to see if the existing literature would support such a contextual model. It always did so abundantly. Last, I would go to experts in that field within the university and show them the paradigm. They usually said in essence, "Where did this come from?" "It seems to accommodate the data better than our present models do".

Over the ensuing 15 years, I received about two of these new contexts a year. At first they appeared to be unrelated to one another. Over time, the blank spaces between them began to be filled in by additional contexts. The culminating insight was the following: within each of us is a genetic, brain dependent, higher intelligence that has a social purpose, a plan, and the power to accomplish its goals. This mortal, higher intelligence appears to be produced by the activity of an evolution-derived brain system devoted to herd (group-species) survival optimization. It seems to be especially aware that working cooperatively for the good of the group is more survival effective than working competitively for oneself as the “Ego” often does. Its thinking, as revealed by the many individuals who have written under its inspiration, seems generally similar in content, and appears to be the biological origin of the core elements of all world religions. It values honesty, integrity, self-denial, morality, and service as the highest good. In the past, it had almost always been misperceived as something external and supernatural, rather than the individual brain-dependent, genetically evolved social wisdom that it now appears to be.

There is evidence that this higher Source is derived from the activity of each individual's cerebellum, a highly compact structure containing more cells that the rest of the brain put together. Not only does the cerebellum give grace and agility to physical movement by coordinating the thousands of positions that one's muscles, bones, and joints can take, it has been implicated in the production of language syntax. Thus, in its production of grammar, thousands of words are also coordinated. Furthermore, based upon considerable evidence, it would appear that the cerebellum is the major site of primary memory. This massive database is connected to the cerebrum, not only at sensory-motor areas involved in the coordination of movement, but also in the frontal cortex and other non-motor areas. Thus, it is not unexpected that, functioning in the herd mode, this most complex brain element could also, through the output of intuition, participate in the coordination of the thousands of social relations in our lives.

It appeared that my own higher intelligence had a twofold plan for me: first, to provide repeatable, verifiable scientific data supporting the existence of such a Source within each of us, and second, to discover non-drug methods to open channels of communication from it to our usual consciousness. Its ultimate goal appears to be to give personal control to each of the billions of Sources alive today. This could enable humankind to evolve to the next higher level, and in this manner lead to the transformation of the planet from waste and destruction to balance and harmony.

I already knew that, as a scientist, I had long since risen to my "level of incompetence" and had produced nothing of great merit. So, a few years ago as a transformative step in this path, I decided to dedicate the rest of my life to the service of my Source. Who I now am is this halting and wayward research assistant of my higher Source. When I have been working under its advisorship, everything I have done under its guidance has come up "smelling like roses". It is quite amazing! All I have to do is effortlessly follow its intuition. In the laboratory, this has led to so many biomedical insights and discoveries that I cannot begin to capitalize upon them all. Having "graduated" to Professor Emeritus, I am in the process of giving them away for the benefit of the citizens of Hawaii, the U.S., and the world at large.

Over the last several years, I have written down many of its revelations in a book called: "Neurorealism: A Transformational Context for Existence Bridging Brain and Mind, Science and Religion". Several reviewers of this manuscript have commented that it satisfies important and presently unmet human needs to understand, realistically and scientifically, yet religiously, who we are and what we can become. The reviewers have repeatedly encouraged me to finish the present (fourth) draft of 30 chapters and 4 appendices and get it published.  However, my Source has not given me the go ahead signal.

In the mean time, this work continues to expand remarkably. The Society of Neurorealism now exists. Other Sources have begun to recognize that we are working in parallel for the same goals. It is exciting to watch Neurorealism develop under the guidance of our Sources. It appears more and more likely that such fruitful collaborations could actually transform the world for the better!

Our Sources are good beyond compare! Find a way to uncover and tap yours and join in the adventure! Your Source has the answers to all of your most important questions. It also has your purpose, the plan you to follow, and the power you need to accomplish it. You can trust it with your life.  It is the emergent human of the future.