New Spiritual Awareness in Neuroscience
James Dyson, MD, Intrviewed by Walter Alexander
Issue: Winter 2008: Cognition, Heart & Mind - Issue #54, Vol. 13
James Dyson, MD, a practicing physician for over thirty years, co-founder of the Park Attwood Clinic in 1978. Park Attwood Clinic is an in- and out-patient UK facility offering a wide range of conventional, complementary and anthroposophical therapies (e.g., rhythmical massage, hydrotherapy, art therapy, eurythmy, mistletoe therapy and counseling). He is currently completing a Master’s degree program in Psychosynthesis (founded by Roberto Assagioli, 1888-1974). While continuing to see patients, his main activities are now in adult education. This interview was conducted in early March 2008, following a workshop with William Bento, PhD, at the Toronto Waldorf School “Lifting the Veil: Physiologic and Psycho-Spiritual Aspects of Depression” and a talk in New York at Anthroposophy NYC on “The Heart as an Organ of Perception.”
LILIPOH: Let’s talk about the way you are thinking about the organs in medicine.
JD: The cutting edge of current research is in the neurosciences. All the modern scanning techniques, the MRI, PET scans and blood perfusion studies, have revolutionized the tracking of correlates of both conscious and unconscious psychological function.
JD: Yes, the tracking of physiological, biochemical and neuroelectrical aspects of brain function has been revolutionized in the last 10 years. While it’s still in its infancy, some remarkable and unexpected findings have already emerged. For example, biochemical and electrical changes that accompany conscious decisions seem to precede the actual conscious awareness of what’s happened by fractions of microseconds. While one would have presumed that the consciousness preceded the biochemistry, it’s turning out to be the other way around. In a similar way, the idea that time is linear is breaking down. Blood flow studies show that before a part of the brain opens up and starts to become active, the blood flow to that part of the brain increases. How that is induced is probably still not clear in most cases, but it does raise the question as to whether or not the nerve activity precedes the blood. The findings in neurocardiology are especially striking. Research by the people at HeartMath1 suggests that neurological and biochemical and hormonal activity in the heart can actually influence correlates of activity in the brain. Now, it always used to be assumed that the brain was the conductor of the orchestra, and that it sent the messages down to the heart. But this finding says that there is, at the very least, a two way feedback loop between cardioneurological activity and cerebral neurobiochemical activity.
LILIPOH: Suggesting that the heart is the boss?
JD: Within this feedback loop it becomes increasingly difficult and probably ultimately impossible to separate cause and effect, to separate the sensory aspect from the motor aspect, to separate what is inducing and what is responding to the induction. That’s a shock to our cause and effect linear thinking, the thinking which inspired classical neurology in the 19th century and which led to this rigid division in the idea of the motor nerve and the sensory nerve. All these thoughts are now breaking down at the neurobiological level, much in the same way that Newtonian concepts of mechanics broke down in the 1920s, 30s and 40s in respect to atomic theory with the quantum revolution.
LILIPOH: So what happened in the nuclear sciences is now being reenacted in the biological sciences.
JD: Precisely. And more recently, we have the ideas of chaos theory2 to bring towards this. And the moment we start taking chaos theory seriously, cause and effect––not only do they break down––but boundaries between observer and observed break down. Chaos theory tells us that we’re all part of a much, much greater system and that what we perceive as chaos is simply the signature of what, at another level, is embodying purpose, meaning and value.
LILIPOH: Can you say more about purpose, meaning and value?
JD: We are not living in a universe that is a vacuum in terms of what we, with our limited vocabulary, have to call being and higher intention and meaning. These words are not adequate, but they imply that behind the ecology of which we are all a part there is something higher at work which, for want of a better word, we may call––intentionality.
LILIPOH: It’s been my experience even with the most “cutting edge” and progressively thinking conventional scientists, those fully conversant with quantum concepts and chaos theory, that when you cross over the line and say being or meaning––they turn instantly pale. These are simply taboo terms.
JD: And I think that will probably always be the case. Not just in the atomic sciences or the neurosciences; it’s also the case in conventional psychology. You can only talk about being with someone who has already signed up to a real psychospiritual/psychological approach. Even if you take the most developed and refined aspects of, say, psychodynamic psychology––even the Self Psychology that Heinz Kohut developed—you’re not going to find that their proponents have necessarily accepted the idea of being. Incidentally this premise distinguishes Psychosynthesis Psychology from most other transpersonal psychological disciplines.
LILIPOH: So how does one make that step?
JD: I think that the step to being, irrespective of the field you’re in, can only be made as an inner decision, as an act of will; being can never be proved. The reason is that in meeting that step, we actually confront the boundary of that which is subject to proof. At that point you either create your own reality in which what you experience as being is given its existence, or you deny that element and create a different reality—and that’s free choice. And in the overall scheme of things, I suppose some of us will take one road and others will take the other.
LILIPOH: And humanity will be deeply divided in this respect.
JD: Human beings may well create and end up living in these two widely divergent realities. Also, it will be completely illusory for anyone to imagine—whatever field or specialty you’re working in––that this issue will be solved through yet more research. This will only serve to push the boundary further down the line.
LILIPOH: But isn’t it possible and worthwhile, by really being rigorous as a spiritual researcher and not being fuzzy-headed when you talk about being, to make that bridge or step to the inner decision as short as possible?
JD: Yes. It’s perfectly possible that by being every bit as conversant and up-to-date with the data as the next guy, you can bring this issue into clear focus. But I would never attempt to try to convince someone of a different worldview on the basis of the data. It won’t work. Human beings don’t operate that way. You have to bring to the data a willingness to create a hypothesis that says “here is being.”
LILIPOH: And where does that willingness come from?
JD: It’s one of the mysteries of the Self, isn’t it? You need to seriously question the habit of assuming that on the material plane of measurables, the real causes must also be found. To contemplate the idea of an immaterial plane interpenetrating the material plane––indeed coexisting with it––to create this thought, in itself, is to cross a boundary or a threshold in oneself. And you meet this boundary in every single field. You meet it for instance both in immunology and in genetics. For example, the more is known about how genes operate, how they are turned on and off, the more we must question what or who is turning what on and what off. Finding an ultimate answer will never be possible because the real universe is not dualistic, not split into cause and effect.
We’re actually living in a universe that is a unity through and through, from top to bottom, right to left, back to front—because there is no top, bottom, back to front, right to left in this universe. It actually transcends space, functions as a coherent entity. And we’ve come back to the original point again. By nature of the very meaning of the word ‘entity,’ being has to be present because what is an entity if it doesn’t exist?
LILIPOH: And if you try to explain away being as an epiphenomenon––a figment of purely physical causes?
JD: And who then is explaining all this to whom? And why?
LILIPOH: I’m with you on that. It’s useful if you can simply point out the circularity of the thinking. You know, you can think, “There is no such thing as thinking.”
JD: That’s the point—and that’s the very freedom that thinking gives us. It is also what Steiner was demonstrating in his book Philosophy of Freedom, trying to get around this tendency of putting the problem outside of yourself––by actually including the observer within the observed. By doing this, thinking, in itself, becomes, at least in principle, the object of observation. Then the doer and the thinking are part of the creation of the concept.
LILIPOH: And still, those who don’t want to go there, won’t.
JD: They will simply defend themselves by hiding behind smokescreens of more and more facts.
LILIPOH: So we’d better get back to the organs.
JD: Yes, we moved off the track through considering the important issue of cause and effect in physiology. I wanted to highlight the fact that there is now a basis for talking about neurophysiological feedback loops between the heart and brain. Now––is it too much of a jump to suggest that when our investigations go a little further, we will recognize that there are also neurohormonal physiological feedback loops between the heart and kidney, heart and liver, heart and lung? The moment we embrace that idea as a possible hypothesis, it becomes evident that these loops between these organs and the brain are just as important as the loops between the heart and the brain. We can’t ever again look at the brain as an organ in isolation. We can’t look at the brain as a one-way system of informing or instructing the metabolic organs. The latest research, I think, is finally pointing to this interrelationship and, in so doing, it is confirming and validating Steiner’s picture that mental function is indeed related to organ physiology. Of course, the details of the metabolic connections still need to be worked out, and this could take a long time.
LILIPOH: Is it too much of a stretch to think that future research will make a further link between the organs and the cosmos? For example, between organ function and the planetary movements?
JD: I don’t think it is too much of a stretch at all, but research will need motivated people and funding. This particular piece could possibly still be a very long way ahead. However, a remarkable start has been made. Several years ago, HeartMath researchers were suggesting connections between the electromagnetic field of the heart and the electromagnetic activity of the sun. And remember, the moment you identify such a link with one organ, if you know how to investigate, you could, in principle, find it with other organs.
Steiner encouraged research on this subject in the early 1920s, looking first at how the planets were influencing the germination of seeds and the life of plants. Lilly Kolisko built up most of the original sensitive crystallization work, but her research has proved difficult to reproduce systematically. This raises the question of whether her methodology was fundamentally flawed or whether the difficulty in obtaining reproducible results suggests that in this area of subtle dynamics the researcher can’t be entirely separated from the field under investigation. The who may always have an influence . . .
LILIPOH: That makes confirmatory statistical analyses problematic.
JD: Unfortunately this could well be the case. The clinical experience of homeopathic practitioners has sometimes been hard to confirm in double-blind, randomized clinical trials. The results they’ve been experiencing in daily practice seem to elude this mode of investigation. It’s almost as though the research tools of objective science themselves violate the very field that is operative in the efficacy of the medicine. While research methodologies can be designed that take this into account, they will never yield the form of statistical hard data that is currently the gold standard of a materialistic and reductionist science.
Consider cancer treatment for example. I believe that if sufficient numbers of people were being treated in an ideal anthroposophical oncology institute, in which Viscum was being used to optimal effect as an adjuvant treatment along with supportive therapies––and the outcomes for this group were analyzed, I would be very surprised if the statistics did not reveal a significantly positive difference in favor of those being treated in accordance with an anthroposophic paradigm. Of course to do this would presuppose a comparative study with patients with equivalent tumor staging. At the same time, I am not naïve enough to imagine that you could necessarily interpret these statistics in a linear way to prove the efficacy of the Viscum. I believe you could only attribute the success to the system as a whole, not to any of its components in isolation. Nevertheless, I have personally witnessed some remarkable regressions and remissions in patients receiving Viscum that would be difficult to attribute to other agents. In this case, I believe that a body of evidence must rely on thoroughly substantiated individual case histories.
LILIPOH: Showing a statistically significant advantage for a therapeutic system or strategy does carry some weight.
JD: Yes, I believe it would, or at least it could. But to appreciate the value of this approach requires an openness to the concept of interacting systems. There is certainly great interest and enthusiasm from many people in investigating systems-theory in a biological context, but it’s going to take a long time before this understanding translates into a robust form of medical research methodology. And it’s going to be very difficult, because by definition, the moment you introduce a research methodology into a system, you’re influencing the very system you’re trying to look at. Of course this thought could be taken to absurd extremes, but it’s understandable that researchers say, “Let’s just stick with the traditional methodology because it’s the only way to produce quantifiable and reproducible results––and that’s after all where the money is.” So, experimental science finds itself locked into this reductionist framework. Conversely it is also understandable that so many practitioners back away from this field.
LILIPOH: But won’t showing connections that stand up to statistical analyses between the organs and the planets be convincing for many people?
JD: Showing connections of the organs, and indeed of any organic life on earth, to planetary processes may well prove to be a future line of fruitful research, at least among those who are open to it. Those who aren’t will still look for ways to discredit it, I suspect.
LILIPOH: How do you see knowledge of those connections being put to good use?
JD: I certainly think there could be an astrosophy of epidemiological medicine showing particular times when susceptibility to contracting a particular ailment is higher or lower for a given organ or organ system. And I’m inclined to think that this kind of study might even ultimately lend itself to statistical verification. How far it could go in terms of predictions, I don’t know, but it’s a real possibility. It’s definitely futuristic stuff.
But, who knows, by the time we get there, human consciousness will probably have evolved to the point that the need for this kind of research will no longer be felt!
LILIPOH: I think people have to be won over––as many as possible––and there will be many people who need to see the data to get them past a tipping point.
JD: With respect to the organs, we’ve established that it is just as reasonable to start looking at organ function in relation to psychological function as it is to look at brain function—even if we, as yet, can’t quite be precise as to the exact physiological mechanism, the approach appears to have promise. And the moment you establish the legitimacy of looking qualitatively at the activity of the organs, as we were doing in Toronto with case histories, you begin to be able to work therapeutically from what you see.
LILIPOH: Can you elaborate on that idea?
JD: I can try! You can infer the kind of organ activity that’s going on from the qualitative aspects of how a human being presents him or herself. So we could say in one instance of depression that the liver is drying out and in another case that the liver is definitely congested and too moist. These are of course “soft” observations––but I’m quite certain that if we had the tools available, we could validate them biochemically. I’m not certain as to which parameters we’d have to investigate, but I’m sure they are present and traceable.
LILIPOH: And that such observations can inform treatment?
JD: Yes. You can already translate that simple observation into a meaningful axis of therapy. It can inform your approach as a physician, counselor or therapist. And if that ends up helping, it is self validating. Of course one could advocate abandoning this approach until we have researched all the data to justify it. But then we won’t get the data until we have enough people inspired to work this way. It’s a Catch-22, isn’t it?
LILIPOH: Ultimately, could astrosophy tell you the most opportune moment to treat that organ—say, to work on the congestion in the liver?
JD: I believe it could perhaps be of some help in this respect. We would, of course, need to obtain the permission of the patient to work in this way, to look behind the scenes to the cosmic picture and dynamics with that person. But with the individual’s permission, I believe we could optimize treatment interventions accordingly. And indeed, Steiner was encouraging his medical co-workers to take account of cosmic constellations in diagnosis more than eighty years ago.
LILIPOH: Is there any other evidence to support . . .
JD: In a very small way perhaps, for example in cancer treatment, I gather that there’s a substantial body of evidence to suggest that surgery and chemotherapy are more effective when carried out in relation to a particular point in the menstrual cycle. We know that the menstrual rhythms are connected to the lunar rhythms––so these bridges are not as far-fetched as people might have us believe. I certainly think this line of thought cannot be dismissed out of hand.
LILIPOH: Are you aware of Dennis Klocek’s work with meteorology? He traces the influence of changes in solar radiation and planetary movements on the jet streams which steer the major storm paths and air masses.
JD: It is beautiful to see the same connections coming from another direction! And what are the solar radiations? You know, one of Steiner’s most seemingly outrageous statements is in the Bridge Lectures (The Bridge between Universal Spirituality and the Physical Constitution of Man, Rudolf Steiner Archive, www.rsarchive.org) where he says, in effect, that it is only what is going on in the moral enthusiasm of the warmth ether that keeps the sun shining! So the solar radiations could perhaps be the sum total of what is going on in the collective hearts of humanity. Also, anthroposophic medicine relates the heart to the warmth ether. Well, you know, you read this as a young medical student and you say to yourself, “What next?” “Tell me another one.” But when you actually think the whole picture through over years or decades, you may end up feeling there’s no other way of imagining it. And then putting this together with the solar cosmic/meteorological connections you just mentioned, you suddenly recognize—My God, we are part of this cosmic loop, too. There is no objective universe out there. It is us.
LILIPOH: This is a huge step, even for those who have entertained these thoughts over time––but it seems that’s where this is pointing.
JD: You turn everything inside out. And I suppose this is why spiritual science is difficult for many people to embrace. It is worth remembering, however, that Steiner was convinced that eventually there would be no conflict between spiritual science and natural science.
LILIPOH: He said also that there will be different streams of humanity, some going this way and others who will refuse to.
JD: We will each create our own reality, and in the course of time this will imprint itself on different streams, maybe even on a genetic level. How they will or won’t interact is an interesting question, but not one we can pursue further here, I guess!
LILIPOH: So, to pose a final question, one that other physicians have found difficult to answer––you meet with a new patient today––what are you looking at differently than when you finished your conventional training? What has changed in the way your senses work, your processes work?
JD: Perhaps I look more ecologically at the patient. I see the patient as an expression of a number of interacting systems––the physical, the life, the consciousness, the self and the spirit. I don’t confine any of these systems to what is contained within the skin ––they are a part of systems that link the person to the social environment––and the cosmos. The organ systems of the patient give access to the different layers. So the lung organ system speaks more of the earthly quality, the liver more of the fluid, or etheric, the kidney more of the air or astral, the heart more of the fire or the warmth, which relates to the I or self. Therefore my whole approach to diagnosis and treatment has inevitably become broader, wider and more qualitative, more pictorial. However, this can only supplement––not replace––the standard scientific rigors of diagnostic methodology. Also, I suspect that I may have a greater confidence than I did then, in my intuitive ability to bring forward a therapeutic intervention––such that in the moment I conceive it, I may not be able to thoroughly understand or even justify it. Now I have more confidence in the notion that will precedes consciousness. Incidentally, this axiom is found both in anthroposophy and Psychosynthesis psychology.
LILIPOH: In Toronto I heard you speak about the crisis precipitated at the very moment a diagnosis forms for you about a patient.
JD: Yes. Diagnoses always run the risk of reducing the patient to an abstraction––which at worst may be felt by as a painful rejection or even annihilation. To avoid this calls for both presence of mind and a shift of inner identification from objectification to subjective identification. For the physician this is like going through the eye of the needle, surrendering your identity as the knower and thereby becoming a mediator of Will. If you can manage to do this, the ecology of the systems that you’re addressing will change at some level. However, at the end of a tiring day, this may be challenging since it assumes an availability of being.
LILIPOH: And, whatever guiding beings are around the person you’re treating.
JD: Yes. That requires that I recognize that it’s not up to me to create the fix—rather it’s my job to reintegrate the system back into such a state that it can fix itself. Steiner advised us, I think in Spiritual Science and Medicine, to look for the interventions which produce small but sustainable results, rather than the massive interventions which produce quick results––because the latter will more easily fall back, but the former you’ll be able to build upon. This axiom applies equally to psychological interventions. Now, as a young practitioner, it’s difficult to adopt that approach, because you may well feel the need to produce big results. And this is indeed sometimes possible even within the realm of complementary medicines. You can practice any system of complementary medicine in such a way that it may induce quick and striking effects both on a physical and psychological levels. This is often seen, for example, in acupuncture and in some forms of hypnotic interventions. But it’s not necessarily the wisest way in the long run.
LILIPOH: And why is that?
JD: The body is an ecological system and a large intervention may disrupt the system’s coherence. Moreover, “smaller” interventions may help patients to take responsibility for their own path of healing. Both as a doctor and as a mentor to my patients, I’ve generally worked with small interventions that I wouldn’t necessarily have imagined would have made a significant difference––but as it turned out, they usually did. Gaining this experience has increased my confidence in the inner wisdom of the body and of the psyche when exposed to the right therapeutic attitude and conditions. Perhaps this is a good point to conclude.
LILIPOH: Thank you very much!
1. Institute of HeartMath (IHM), founded 1991, conducts research on emotional physiology and heart-brain interactions, along with basic inquiries into the human biofield and energetic system. IHM also develops clinical applications to improve health, performance, and quality of life.
2. Chaos theory was defined first by Edward Lorenz in 1960, subsequent to his computer modeling of weather systems. “The butterfly effect,” an aspect of chaos theory, shows that a minute change in the initial conditions can drastically change the long-term behavior of a vast system.