Reprogramming your Biochemistry for Immortality:
An Interview with Ray Kurzweil
Exclusive Articles and Interviews
Reprogramming your Biochemistry for Immortality:
By David Jay Brown
Ray Kurzweil is a computer scientist, software developer, inventor, entrepreneur, philosopher, and a leading proponent of radical life extension. He is the coauthor (with Terry Grossman, M.D.) of Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever, which is one of the most intriguing and exciting books on life extension around. Kurzweil and Grossman’s approach to health and longevity combines the most current and practical medical knowledge with a soundly-based, yet awe-inspiring visionary perspective of what’s to come.
Kurzweil’s philosophy is built upon the premise that we now have the knowledge to identify and correct the problems caused by most unhealthy genetic predispositions. By taking advantage of the opportunities afforded us by the genomic testing, nutritional supplements, and lifestyle adjustments, we can live long enough to reap the benefits of advanced biotechnology and nanotechnology, which will ultimately allow us to conquer aging and live forever. At the heart of Kurzweil’s optimistic philosophy is the notion that human knowledge is growing exponentially, not linearly, and this fact is rarely taken into account when people try to predict the rate of technological advance in the future. Kurzweil predicts that at the current rate of knowledge expansion we’ll have the technology to completely conquer aging within the next couple of decades.
Part of what makes Kurzweil’s upbeat vision of the future so appealing is his impressive track record as an inventor and engineer, as well as the success of his past predictions. Kurzweil is a leading expert in speech and pattern recognition, and he invented a vast array of computer marvels. He was the principal developer of the first omni-font (any type font) optical character recognition software, the first commercially marketed large vocabulary speech recognition systes, the first print-to-speech reading machine for the blind, the first CCD flatbed scanner, the first text-to-speech synthesizer, and the first music synthesizer capable of recreating the grand piano and other orchestral instruments.
Kurzweil has successfully founded and developed ten businesses in speech recognition, reading technology, music synthesis, virtual reality, financial investment, medical simulation, and cybernetic art. In 2002 Kurzweil was inducted into the U.S. Patent Office’s National Inventors Hall of Fame, and he received the Lemelson-MIT Prize, the nation’s largest award in invention and innovation. He also received the 1999 National Medal of Technology, the nation’s highest honor in technology, from President Clinton in a White House ceremony, and has received twelve honorary Doctorates and honors from three U.S. presidents.
In addition to coauthoring Fantastic Voyage, Kurzweil wrote The 10% Solution for a Healthy Life, and several best selling books on the evolution of intelligence–including The Age of Intelligent Machines, The Age of Spiritual Machines, and The Singularity Is Near, When Humans Transcend Biology. Kurzweil’s books on the evolution of intelligence read like mind-bending science fiction, but are based on a scientific analysis of technology trends. Kurzweil predicts that computer intelligence will exceed human intelligence in only a few decades, and that it won’t be long after that before humans start merging with machines, blurring the line between technology and biology.
Kurzweil works in Wellesley, Massachusetts. I spoke with Ray on February 8, 2006. Ray speaks very precisely, and he chooses his words carefully. He presents his ideas with a lot of confidence, and I found his optimism to be contagious. We spoke about the importance of genomic testing, some of the common misleading ideas that people have about health, and how biotechnology and nanotechnology will radically effect our longevity in the future.
David: What inspired your interest in life extension?
Ray: Probably the first incident that got me on this path was my father’s illness. This began when I was fifteen, and he died seven years later of heart disease when I was twenty-two. He was fifty-eight. I’ll actually be fifty-eight this Sunday. I sensed a dark cloud over my future, feeling like there was a good chance that I had inherited his disposition to heart disease. When I was thirty-five, I was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, and the conventional medical approach made it worse.
So I really approached the situation as an inventor, as a problem to be solved. I immersed myself in the scientific literature, and came up with an approach that allowed me to overcome my diabetes. My levels became totally normal, and in the course of this process I discovered that I did indeed have a disposition, for example, to high cholesterol. My cholesterol was 280 and I also got that down to around 130. That was twenty-two years ago.
I wrote a bestselling health book, which came out in 1993 about that experience, and the program that I’d come up with. That’s what really got me on this path of realizing that–if you’re aggressive enough about reprogramming your biochemistry–you can find the ideas that can help you to overcome your genetic dispositions, because they’re out there. They exist.
About seven years ago, after my book The Age of Spiritual Machines came out in 1999, I was at a Foresight Institute conference. I met Terry Grossman there, and we struck up a conversation about this subject–nutrition and health. I went to see him at his longevity clinic in Denver for an evaluation, and we built a friendship. We started exchanging emails about health issues–and that was 10,000 emails ago. We wrote this book Fantastic Voyage together, which really continues my quest. And he also has his own story about how he developed similar ideas, and how we collaborated.
There’s really a lot of knowledge available right now, although, previously, it has not been packaged in the same way that we did it. We have the knowledge to reprogram our biochemistry to overcome disease and aging processes. We can dramatically slow down aging, and we can really overcome conditions such as atherosclerosis, that leads to almost all heart attacks and strokes, diabetes, and we can substantially reduce the risk of cancer with today’s knowledge. And, as you saw from the book, all of that is just what we call ‘Bridge One’. We’re not saying that taking lots of supplements and changing your diet is going enable you to live five hundred years. But it will enable Baby Boomers–like Dr. Grossman and myself, and our contemporaries–to be in good shape ten or fifteen years from now, when we really will have the full flowering of the biotechnology revolution, which is ‘Bridge Two’.
Now, this gets into my whole theory of information technology. Biology has become an information technology. It didn’t used to be. Biology used to be hit or miss. We’d just find something that happened to work. We didn’t really understand why it worked, and, invariably, these tools, these drugs, had side-effects. They were very crude tools. Drug development was called drug discovery, because we really weren’t able to reprogram biology. That is now changing. Our understanding of biology, and the ability to manipulate it, is becoming an information technology. We’re understanding the information processes that underlie disease processes, like atherosclerosis, and we’re gaining the tools to reprogram those processes.
Drug development is now entering an era of rational drug design, rather than drug discovery. The important point to realize is that the progress is exponential, not linear. Invariably people–including sophisticated people–do not take that into consideration, and it makes all the difference in the world. The mainstream skeptics declared the fifteen year genome project a failure after seven and half years because only one percent of the project was done. The skeptics said, I told you this wasn’t going to work–here you are halfway through the project and you’ve hardly done anything. But the progress was exponential, doubling every year, and the last seven doublings go from one percent to a hundred percent. So the project was done on time. It took fifteen years to sequence HIV. We sequenced the SARS virus in thirty-one days.
There are many other examples of that. We’ve gone from ten dollars to sequence one base pair in 1990 to a penny today. So in ten or fifteen years from now it’s going to be a very different landscape. We really will have very powerful interventions, in the form of rationally-designed drugs that can precisely reprogram our biochemistry. We can do it to a large extent today with supplements and nutrition, but it takes a more extensive effort. We’ll have much more powerful tools fifteen years from, so I want it to be in good shape at that time.
Most of my Baby Boomer contemporaries are completely oblivious of this perspective. They just assume that aging is part of the cycle of human life, and at 65 or 70 you start slowing down. Then at eighty you’re dead. So they’re getting ready to retire, and are really unaware
Elation Over Chelation:
By David Jay Brown
Garry Gordon, M.D. and I coauthored the book Detox with Oral Chelation (Smart Publications, 2007).
Dr. Gordon is one of the world’s experts in chelation therapy, nutrition, and mineral metabolism. He is the founder and current president of the International College of Advanced Longevity Medicine (ICALM), and is one of the cofounders of the American College for Advancement in Medicine (ACAM). Dr. Gordon wrote the original protocol for the safe and effective use of EDTA oral chelation therapy, and is the author of numerous scientific papers on the subject. He is also the coauthor of the bestselling book The Chelation Answer.
Chelation is a chemical process in which a metal or mineral–such as lead, mercury, or calcium–is bonded to another substance. This is a natural process that goes on continually in our bodies. Chelation therapy–which employs the weak acid EDTA–has been shown to safely improve blood flow and relieve symptoms associated with atherosclerotic vascular disease in more than eighty percent of the patients treated. Chelation therapy also helps to prevent arteriosclerosis, improve circulation, and remove lead and toxic heavy metals from the body. This results in a myriad of beneficial effects, including improved vision and hearing, as well as better skin texture and tone. It also helps to improve cognitive function by increasing circulation to the brain.
Dr. Gordon received his Doctor of Osteopathy in 1958 from the Chicago College of Osteopathy in Illinois. In 1962 he received an honorary medical degree from the University of California, Irvine, and in 1964 he completed his Radiology Residency at Mt. Zion in San Francisco. For many years Dr. Gordon was the Medical Director of the Mineral Lab in Hayward, California, a prominent laboratory for trace mineral analysis.
Dr. Gordon is on the Board of Homeopathic Medical Examiners for Arizona, and is a Board Member of International Oxidative Medicine Association (IOMA). He is advisor to the American Board of Chelation Therapy, and was the past instructor and examiner for all chelation physicians. Dr. Gordon is responsible for Peer Review for Chelation Therapy in the State of Arizona.
Dr. Gordon is currently attempting to establish standards for the proper use of oral and intravenous chelation therapy as an adjunct for treating all the major diseases. To find out more about Dr. Gordon’s work visit his Web sitewww.gordonresearch.com
I interviewed Dr. Gordon on March 16, 2006. Dr. Gordon speaks enthusiastically about alternative medicine and his excitement is contagious. We spoke about the dangers of environmental toxins and the benefits of chelation therapy, the differences between oral and I.V. chelation therapies, and about how chelation therapy effects bone growth.
David: What do you think are some of the biggest problems with modern medicine and what do you think needs to be done to help correct the situation?
Dr. Gordon: The biggest problem is greed. We have so many people in medicine today who are known to be receiving compensation from a drug company, or from some other company. It’s actually gotten to the point that the editor of the New England Journal of Medicine actually wrote a book about it. I believe she resigned saying that it’s gotten to the point that it’s almost impossible to have any honesty in medicine. So, because we have money driving the system, and it is such a huge system, we’ve lost our anchor. People are no longer functioning primarily to help their fellow man. It’s–how can I get ahead? Or can I get a million dollars worth of stock out of this? So the picture that we have today is so drug-oriented, and we’ve walked away from the medicine that the rest of the world practices.
Western medicine is not the dominant theory in the world. There are billions of people in the world. Many of these people know what plants grow in their area and what these plants can do medicinally. If you’re an African Bushman, for example, and you get bit by a snake or you step on something, you know what leaf to use as a remedy. But this knowledge has been lost to those of us here in the Western United States. We pretend that something that is FDA-approved, or that is used by mainstream medicine, has some science to it–whereas, in fact, if you look at it, a lot of it is nonsense.
Everything has to be looked at in view of what we would call the benefit and the risk. What people don’t understand is that a drug can get approved in this country on the flimsiest of research–in the following sense. All any drug has to do is be one percent better than a placebo and it can get approved–even if it’s killing people! So, here’s what’s really sad–if I ever killed somebody with vitamin C, they would absolutely drum vitamin C out the door. They’d put it on prescription so that nobody could get it.
But drugs like Celebrex and Vioxx kill people left and right, and they go forward doing this, because they are “approved.” But what people don’t understand is that the drug companies are allowed to throw away a study that shows that the drug was worse than placebo. They can keep going until they get one out of three studies that says it’s slightly better than placebo, and now they’ve got an approved drug. Then they can turn around and–according to headlines in the Wall Street Journal lately–bill people as much as as six hundred thousand dollars a year for something that doesn’t cost them six thousand dollars.
In other words, the drug companies are giving the drugs a thousand-fold markup, and they feel it’s legitimate, because they’ve got this incredible story behind it. Most people don’t realize that if they had simply taken vitamin C they would have clearly outlived however long this so-called new miracle drug makes them live with their cancer. These so-called miracle drugs that are getting approved often only extend life span one or two months. Yet they can legitimately charge an arm and a leg, and they can have side-effects that include death, whereas I can not have any such side-effects in alternative medicine. So the system is really just upside down. It’s out of control, and it is totally driven by money. It’s lost its anchor, which was to do good, and we have a crisis in health today.
The Earth has become so totally polluted that everybody today is walking around with high-levels of styrene, PCBs, and dioxins. They’re in every human being we test today, as well as is lead, mercury, and cadmium. These are taking their toll–and not just on humans. It’s getting to be more and more extreme. We’re seeing problems like birds at a 10,000 foot elevation that are loaded with mercury. For example, at Mount Washington the birds are loaded with mercury that’s coming from the burning of coal in China. There is simply no escape from the particulate matter. We have poisoned our nest. We have got to do natural things, which means somehow learn how to use simple things–whether it’s garlic, vitamin C, or a high-fiber diet. We have to do something that’s natural, but that’s not the focus of conventional Western medicine today.
The focus is on giving the patient a drug because their knee is bothering them, and if they have a little bit less pain, then it’s an approved treatment. It’s okay if you kill patients with the side-effects of the Vioxx and that Celebrex. So the system today is out of control. We have to go back to our roots and realize that there was a time that we raised the food in our backyard, and we were personally responsible for it. It wasn’t loaded with these pesticides that keep the food from spoiling. You buy something at the store, and it lays in your refrigerator for weeks and doesn’t turn bad, but you put that in your intestine and the chemicals that are in that food are killing your normal bacterias.
So we have huge problems, but I also see us as being able to extend life span. I believe in anti-aging medicine, stem cell research, and what we’re doing today with genetic testing, We’re now able to modulate genes with food. From the results of gene tests we can selectively tell people that they need to emphasize this food and avoid that food. We can make foods that will actually lower your risk of ever getting Alzheimer’s–even if both your mother and father’s side had the disease. You don’t have to get Alzheimer’s, but you have to have knowledge. Knowledge is the gene testing, and we can modulate genes by getting appropriate natural products–like RNA foods.
So this is a New Age that we’re in. We can fight back. But the system at the current time is such that poor folks are being so deluded that they think that if something is an approved drug then it’s the right choice. So they go ahead and let themselves be harmed by the Coumadin, when all they had to do was find out about something as simple as nanokinase and buy a natural thing with their own money. It’s not going to be covered by these wonderful insurance plans that the government comes up with, which subsidizes the most powerful industry in the world–the pharmaceutical industry. Nobody has the profits that these people have.
Nobody has the power that they have to influence legislation. They actually buy our Congress. So the net result is that it’s going to take a period of time for the people to wake up, and this book could do a wonderful job of helping
Shamanic Medicines & Eco-Consciousness:
A Conversation with Dennis McKenna, Ph.D.
By David Jay Brown
Ethnopharmacologist Dennis Mckenna, Ph.D. is one of the world’s experts in tryptamine hallucinogens. He received his doctorate in Botanical Science in 1984 from the University of British Columbia, and was a primary organizer and key scientific collaborator for the Hoasca Project, an international biomedical study of ayahuasca. McKenna has conducted extensive ethnobotanical fieldwork in the Peruvian, Colombian, and Brazilian Amazon, has helped to develop natural products into medicines, and is the author of more than 35 scientific papers. McKenna also coauthored The Invisible Landscape with his brother Terence. To follow are excerpts from a recent interview that I did with Dennis about ecology and psychedelics, followed by an excerpt from his essay “Ayahuasca and Human Destiny.” The complete interview that I did with Dennis will appear in my forthcoming book, Renaissance of the Mind, and his complete essay, along with references, is available at:www.maps.org/news-letters –DJB
David: I’m curious about what type of relationship you see between psychedelics and ecology. Do you see psychedelics playing a role to help increase ecological awareness?
Dennis: I do. I talk about this in my essay “Ayahuasca and Human Destiny.” I think that this is probably what’s going on, and it’s not just with ayahuasca–it’s with all of these psychedelic plants that are used in shamanic traditions. Rather than use the term “entheogen,” which has one kind of connotation, or “psychedelic,” which has another connotation, I prefer the term “shamanic medicine.” The term hallucinogen doesn’t fully describe these plants either, and, in fact, it kind of misdescribes what they’re about. But I like the term “shamanic medicines.”
In a sense, these are plants that are at the core of a set of indigenous practices, having to do with deliberately inducing altered states of consciousness, in such a way that one can learn from those altered states. Whether, in fact, this actually involves supernatural realms, or some sort of super-consciousness, I don’t know, but that is really what shamanism is about. And I think that what we’re seeing in the millennia-old association between shamanic medicines, or psychedelic plants, and humans is essentially a symbiosis, a form of co-evolution.
This is nothing really that unusual in the plant kingdom. Plants and fungi make a large variety of so-called secondary molecules. There’s an enormous chemical diversity of these secondary compounds, and they’re not essential for life because they don’t occur in all species. But in the species that do make them, they serve a function–and the function that they serve is basically a messenger function. In a sense, the secondary compounds are a language for the plants. It’s the way that plants communicate with other organisms in their environments and maintain their relationships. In some cases the communication is quite simple. It can be something like a repellent, or a defensive compound. But when you’re interacting with organisms that have complex nervous systems, it gets a little more interesting, a little more complicated, and I think that bottom line on the evolutionary scale is that these plants are teachers.
This isn’t really a scientific theory. It’s more a personal belief, I suppose–but it’s one that is verifiable to an extent. These plants are trying to teach our species about nature, and about how we fit into that. In some ways, you could say it’s essentially a conduit to a community of species’ mind. Or, if you subscribe to the idea that all of the species on the planet are organized into something like a conscious being, like Gaia, then these are the tools that let us communicate directly with Gaia, directly with that consciousness. This is done for all sorts of reasons, but partly, I think, to understand both nature, and the processes that go on within it.
For example, shamans use psychedelic plants all the time to understand the properties of other plants that they may use for curing or other types of activities. So there is a library of information out there, and psychedelic plants are kind of like the operating system that lets you access that and understand it. So I think that’s part of the purpose of these things.
I think that the other part of the message–at least in my own personal experiences with psychedelics, and in many other people’s–is that Gaia, if you will, through these plants, through these substances that seem so close to our neural chemistry, is trying to tell us to wake up, to realize the context in which we inhabit this ecology, and reorder our thinking accordingly. The message is that we’re part of nature, and that we have to nurture nature. We have to be humble, and, as a species, we’re not particularly humble. And we have to understand that we don’t own nature, and nature is not there for us to exploit, deplete, and destroy. We have to rediscover a different attitude toward nature, a different way of looking at nature, and living in nature.
And I think that in indigenous cultures, where psychedelic shamanism plays a role, they don’t really have a problem with this. This is why their cultures can be sustainable, and they can live in natural ecologies for long periods of time without really depleting their resources or spoiling their habitats. I think that the message, in some ways, has gotten more desperate. Or maybe it’s our perception that it’s more desperate, as Western culture has become more estranged from nature. And a lot of very peculiar attitudes have cropped up in Western culture, that have now been propagated globally, which I think are very unhealthy and very threatening to the stability of the planet.
So if there is an intelligence resident in nature, that communicates to us through psychedelics, it’s getting a little hysterical. It’s like, hey pick up the phone and listen! There’s important information that you need to hear. So I think that’s where the connection comes with ecology, in connecting with this planetary consciousness, for a number of reasons. One of the things that psychedelics do–and this has been well elucidated through neurophysiology and neuroscience–is they activate (or perhaps in some way they suppress) those parts of the limbic system, those parts of the brain, that are involved with defining the boundaries between the self and the world. They dissolve those boundaries, and we invest a lot of time in defining who we are and what separates us from everything else out there–when, in fact, this is an illusion.
We know that we are all part of a continuum, and a model that’s closer to reality is to realize that we are all one. It’s not simply a cliché. In some ways, that’s a more accurate understanding of how we are and how we fit in the world than the idea that we’re just individual particles separated by barriers from everything else. And I think one thing that psychedelics teach, as many other spiritual traditions do, is that we’re all one, and that it’s an important lesson to learn–especially at this stage. We’re not going to save the planet, we’re not going to fundamentally change the way that we relate to nature, until we take that lesson, understand it, take it to heart, and try to express it in the way that we live and the way that we think. Psychedelics teach many lessons, but at this historical juncture I think that this may be the most important one for our culture, and for our society.
I think that back at the end of the 60s, two things did more to change our perspective as a race, as a species–of who we are and what our place in the universe is–than probably anything else previously. One of them was psychedelics. The other one was going to the moon–or, more specifically, that first photograph of the Earth from space. I think that the first time that we were able to look at ourselves, in a sense, from out there and realize what a small planet we are–what a small part of the totality our supposedly very important affairs are–was a very humbling experience. That helped to put us into perspective, or, at least, in sum they did. I really think that those two things were what sparked, or initiated, what we might call eco-consciousness.
Truth, Freedom, and the FDA: An Interview with Durk Pearson and Sandy Shaw
By David Jay Brown
Durk Pearson and Sandy Shaw co-authored two of the first and most widely read books on the subject of human longevity–Life Extension: A Practical Scientific Approach and The Life Extension Companion–which triggered a large amount of popular interest in the subject (including my own), and their many television talk show appearances have reached a large number of people over the years.
Although, perhaps, the ultimate goal of medicine all along, the idea of extending human life in otherwise healthy individuals was a relatively novel concept for most people when Pearson and Shaw published their first book back in 1982. How many people could have predicted back in the early eighties that in just a few years after the publication of Pearson and Shaw’s groundbreaking book that there would be such a huge worldwide interest in life extension, anti-aging, and preventative medicine? Pearson and Shaw were not surprised by this new and growing interest and had, in fact, been anticipating it.
Pearson and Shaw have been studying life extension since 1968. They are largely self-educated. Pearson graduated from MIT with a triple major in physics, biology, and psychology, and Shaw graduated from UCLA with a double-major in chemistry and zoology. However, most of their knowledge comes from consuming scientific and medical journals with a voracious appetite, talking with colleagues, and experimenting on themselves. In this manner, they have become two of the most well-informed people on the planet regarding the biochemical mechanisms of aging, and they continue to study it full- time. Pearson and Shaw then apply this knowledge in designing nutritional supplement formulations for their own use, some of which are available commercially.
Pearson and Shaw have also been very politically-active over the years with regard to protecting people’s rights in America to access nutritional supplements, and to easily obtain available accurate information about the supplements which may benefit their health. To this effect, they wrote the book Freedom of Informed Choice: FDA Versus Nutritional Supplements (Common Sense Press, 1993), and won a landmark lawsuit against the FDA–Pearson v. Shalala–charging the government agency with unconstitutionally restricting manufacturers from distributing truthful health information (which was viewed as a violation of the constitution’s First Amendment guarantee of free speech) that could save many people’s lives. This was a landmark achievement for the dietary supplement industry and for the availability of truthful scientific information to consumers.
This interview occurred on December 16, 2005. Durk and Sandy are responsible for inspiring my own interest in life extension and they have long fascinated me. The couple makes a great team, often completing one another’s sentences, and bouncing ideas and facts back and forth off each other as they speak. It’s as though their nervous systems are symbiotically intertwined, and the breadth of their knowledge is staggering. It doesn’t take much to get them talking passionately about their favorite subjects–life extension and freedom. A few questions can ignite an information explosion. We spoke about how fish oil can improve cardiovascular health, about how the FDA tried to suppress this information, and how they legally forced the FDA into reversing their unconstitutional attempt to suppress the distribution of truthful information.
David: What do you think are the most important nutritional supplements that people should be taking?
Durk: Let me just preface my answer to this question by stating that we’re dealing with a system here–a system for handling free radicals and for doing a lot of other things–and just saying, here’s the most important three or four nutritional supplements really does a disservice to people. This is because free radicals are in fact handled by a rather elaborate system that’s evolved over the past few billion years that the planet’s had oxygen, and just having one of them doesn’t really do you anywhere as much good as having a set of them. But If I wanted to mention just one, I would say EPA and DHA, particularly DHA found in oils from cold water fatty fishes. The reason for that is that it can reduce the risk of a sudden-death heart attack by anywhere from about fifty percent to eighty percent, depending on the dose. As little as two meals per week of fatty cold water fish could give you about a forty to fifty percent reduction on your risk of sudden-death heart attacks.
Sandy: Three hundred thousand people die of sudden death heart attacks every year in the United States, so if all of those people were taking the recommended amounts of fish oil supplements, or the two fatty fish meals a week, then there’d be about fifty percent fewer that would have died. In other words, a hundred and fifty thousand people would not have died.
Durk: They’re very inexpensive, very safe, and very effective. You see these sort of heart attacks on TV all the time. Somebody has a heart attack, the ambulance arrives, and they defibrillate and resuscitate the person and everything is okay. Well, it doesn’t work that way outside the hospital, because they have to get that defibrillator to the person within a few minutes.
Sandy: But most of the incidences of fibrillation occur outside of a hospital, usually in a person’s home or where they work, and they don’t get to the hospital right away. If you lose several minutes, by that time you’ve either already died or you’ve suffered irreversible brain damage, so if you do survive you’re in very damaged condition.
Durk: Under the usual conditions, your brain starts dying after about five minutes from a lack of circulation, which occurs when your heart fibrillates–just vibrates and stops pumping blood. Incidentally, that’s what happens when you are electrocuted. At about ten minutes your brain is irreversibly and completely gone. A response time for a really good paramedic operation is about eight minutes. So you can see that there’s not much of chance for revival, and in fact, paramedics in the field are actually able to revive about two percent of people whose hearts have gone into fibrillation from a sudden-death heart attack. The DHA is very effective in preventing this from occurring. It doesn’t stop the heart attack from happening, but it turns a sudden-death heart attack, which gives you very little chance, into a…
Sandy: …survivable heart attack, where you do recover, and you don’t have irreversible damage to the brain. You can have a full recovery.
Durk: They can get you to the hospital, and then they can do angioplasty, or put in a standard, quadruple bypass or whatever.
One thing that’s very important for people to know about this is that the FDA tried to suppress this information…
Sandy: …about the benefits of fish oil. We actually sued the FDA in 1994 because they would not permit a health claim that fish oils may reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.
Durk: It’s not that they merely would not permit it, they actually issued a regulation that stated that it was a crime to state that the cold water fish oils, with omega-3 fatty acids, could reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. It was actually illegal. They specifically made it illegal.
Sandy: So we filed suit for violation of the First Amendment, because they were not permitting the communication of truthful information.
Durk: At the time we filed suit against them in 1994 there were one hundred and seventy-four papers on the subject in the scientific literature. A hundred and seventy of them supported our position; four did not. The four that did not were very small preliminary studies that didn’t have the statistical power to detect the fifty percent reduction in sudden-death heart attacks. During the seven years that we litigated against the FDA, one million Americans died premature preventable deaths.
Sandy: Half of the three hundred thousand people dying every year from that wouldn’t have died if they’d have been taking fish oil. However, dietary supplement companies, and also food companies offering fish, couldn’t tell people about the benefits of fish oil. And because of that people simply didn’t have the information.
Durk: Since the legal case was resolved in our favor in 2001, you’re now starting to see claims on fish oil supplements, and recently the FDA even caved in and is allowing claims on fish. So I think we’re going to see a very dramatic reduction in people dying of heart attacks as a result of this.
Sandy: I wanted to add that one of the ways that we study the effects of the various supplements is to look at metabolic pathway charts. You see, what happens with free radicals is that they’re handled by a chain of antioxidants in the body. It’s not just one or a couple that take care of the free radicals that are constantly around in the body. They’re constantly there because you’re producing them naturally through metabolic activity, and your body has got to handle these free radicals.
The metabolic pathways show you that once a free radical scavenger like vitamin C reacts with a free radical, then it becomes a free radical itself. It becomes an ascorbyl radical. That radical then has to be taken care of by another antioxidant. Glutathione usually takes care of the vitamin C radical, and converts vitamin C back to it’s reduced state.
Psychedelic Warfare? Exploring the Potential of Psychoactive Weapons
An Interview with James Ketchum, M.D.
By David Jay Brown
James Ketchum, M.D. is a retired Army colonel, a Board Certified psychiatrist, and an Assistant Clinical professor of Psychiatry at UCLA. He received his M.D. from Cornell Medical School, and is the author of the book Chemical Warfare Secrets Almost Forgotten.
During the 1960s, Ketchum was a research director for the Army’s Chemical Center at Edgewood Arsenal in Maryland, where thousands of U.S. soldiers served as volunteers for the secret testing of psychedelic and deliriant drugs as incapacitating agents. The goal was to develop non-lethal military weapons, which could be used to temporarily knock people out without necessarily hurting them.
I found Ketchum’s book Chemical Warfare Secrets Almost Forgotten to be absolutely fascinating and difficult to put down. It’s a treasure chest of rare information, compiled from a massive amount of research that I was largely unaware of. The book is filled with many interesting personal photographs, humorous anecdotes, and it is compulsively readable. Most importantly, it fills a vital historical gap in the archives of psychedelic drug research. From 1955 to 1975 several thousand U.S. soldiers served as volunteer test subjects for psychedelic drugs (such as LSD and strong cannabis derivatives), and deliriant drugs (such BZ and other belladonnoid compounds), where they were administered a battery of physical and cognitive performance tests to see how well they could perform under the drug’s influence.
While reading Ketchum’s book, I was struck by the strange historical irony, that some of the very drugs that were associated in the 1960s with the counterculture’s antiwar movement in America were–at the very same time–being researched as secret military weapons. While the thought of government-funded experiments into chemical warfare agents may give you the chills, Ketchum maintains that his research was motivated by the desire to save human lives and develop more humane, non-lethal weapons. Part of his motivation for writing his book was to clear up the misconceptions that many people in the media have about the Army’s all-volunteer research program, often confused with the CIA’s notorious and nefarious MK-ULTRA mind control program that sometimes even administered LSD to ordinary unwitting U.S. citizens.
Ketchum is a difficult man to pigeonhole, as he has always been somewhat of a maverick. In 1966 he was granted two years off from his research at Edgewood Arsenal to become a post-doc in neuropsychology with Karl Pribram at Stanford University. While in California he spent time documenting the psychedelic subculture in the Bay Area on film, and volunteered time as a physician at the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic in San Francisco. Ketchum also supports research into the potential therapeutic benefits of cannabis and psychedelics; he served for several years as a member of NORML (the National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws) and is still active in MAPS (the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Research). Ketchum’s book contains a Foreword by the legendary psychedelic chemist Alexander Shulgin. Popular cyber culture commentator Ken Goffman (aka RUSirius, author of Mondo 2000) helped with the editing of the book. In 2007, Ketchum even lectured at the Burning Man Festival in Nevada, so he’s demonstrated a rare ability to communicate across some pretty varied subcultures.
I spoke with Ketchum on September 8, 2008. I found Jim to be very gracious and he appears to have a lot of integrity when he talks about his research. We discussed his studies at Edgewood Arsenal, why chemical warfare agents may be more humane than traditional weapons, the future of chemical warfare, and the possible therapeutic potential of psychedelics. To find out more about Dr. Ketchum’s work, visit his Web site: http://forgottensecrets.net
David: How did you become interested in psychiatry?
Jim: When I was eight years old I wrote a composition in class that stated I wanted to be a scientist when I grew up and “help struggling humanity.” So when I entered college I started as a pre-med student. Then I shifted briefly to a philosophy major. I left it to major in clinical psychology, and finally reverted to pre-med. I focused my eye on psychiatry when I got through all this switching around. I got the necessary training in medicine at Cornell University Medical School, but then entered the Army for my internship and residency training. It was only near the end of my residency that the story starts, as far as chemical warfare goes.
David: When you graduated from medical school, what was your initial reaction when you were first approached by the military to do secret research into incapacitating agents?
Jim: The invitation came more than four years after completing medical school, and was actually somewhat of a happenstance. The Edgewood Arsenal program of research into chemical weapons had started to focus on incapacitating agents–which is to say non-lethality, or low lethality agents. No psychiatrist had been assigned to the Medical Labs and a disturbing psychiatric reaction had occurred in one of their studies. My mentor at Walter Reid, Dr. David Rioch, called me in and said a psychiatrist was needed at Edgewood Arsenal and would I be interested in such an assignment? I grabbed at it because it seemed challenging and really interesting.
David: What were some of the chemical agents that you studied at Edgewood and what did you learn about them?
Jim: Before my arrival LSD was the only agent that had been studied in some detail. My predecessor, Dr. Van Sim initiated and supervised most of the human research prior to 1961. But a new and different agent was provided to the Army a few months before I arrived. Over time it was referred to by a number of names, but finally was called simply BZ. I spent the better part of three years studying it intensively and eventually writing up a detailed summary. I also did, however, some additional work with LSD, and with a variant of THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), provided by Harry Pars, a chemist at A.D. Little, with some technical guidance by Dr. Alexander Shulgin, primarily known, then and now, for his creative synthesis of psychedelic drugs.
It was evident that this variant of THC had several times the potency of THC found in marijuana, so there was speculation that it might be powerful enough to be useful as an incapacitating agent. It certainly was predicted to be safe, much like the marijuana to which it was related, but it lacked sufficient intoxicating effects in the dose range we studied. It was obvious that it wouldn’t be a practical agent so after a brief trial with the volunteer subjects, I turned my attention almost entirely to BZ, whose effects I thereafter studied in detail with the help of more than three hundred highly cooperative enlisted soldiers.
Convinced of its effectiveness and safety, BZ was actually adopted by higher Army echelons as the first (and only) standard incapacitating agent. It was produced in quantity and loaded into volleyball sized bomblets for delivery as an aerosol from overhead aircraft. I had very little to do with this phase, nor was I particularly interested in the dispersal aspects.
Meanwhile, we continued to study additional compounds of similar type, which is to say the “belladonnoid” category since their effects were qualitatively very much like atropine, a drug approved for use for many centuries. Some people may be familiar with atropine, used as a pre-anesthetic to reduce salivation.
BZ differs from atropine in that it is about twenty times as potent and up to twenty times longer lasting than atropine. The dose required by injection or inhalation is only about half a milligram, enough to produce an incapacitating delirium lasting 48 to 96 hours, followed by full recovery.
The other compounds that came under scrutiny after BZ were often even better. Some acted relatively more on the central nervous system, with very little effect on heart rate, or blood pressure. Such physiological effects were more characteristic of atropine and BZ. We guessed that some similar agents might even be better from a safety standpoint. Thus, we went on to study about a dozen different compounds that were structural relatives of BZ–either shorter acting, longer acting, more potent, more predominantly central in action, and so forth. But meanwhile the Army seemed to lose interest in these compounds as a group and put them aside, perhaps primarily for political reasons related to the unpopular war in Viet Nam and the growing protest against chemical weapons of all types.
David: Why do you think that chemical warfare agents may be more humane than traditional weapons, and can you talk a little about what inspired you to write the book Chemical Warfare Secrets Almost Forgotten?
Jim: It seemed obvious to me that chemical weapons that could produce non-lethal temporary incapacitation would be more humane than conventional deadly weapons. You have to go back in time and change your mindset a little to understand what I mean. Back to the early 1960s the idea of developing a non-lethal chemical weapon was generally accepted and even encouraged. The notion started out with Chief of the Chemical Corps, Major General William Creasy, who had developed the somewhat idealistic belief that LSD might be such a weapon. He became wildly enthusiastic about it and presented his arguments to Congress. As I try to point out in my book, “harm reduction” was just as important to the Army then as it is among civilians today in relation to drug problems.
Congress, in 1955, was wildly enthusiastic about Creasy’s vision of a city being temporarily neutralized with LSD in order to carry out a military mission with minimal loss of life. They voted, with only one naysayer, to triple the Chemical Corps budget, as requested, and they gave their blessing to further LSD research. I shared the enthusiasm expressed by Congress and felt I was working toward a very noble goal. My feelings haven’t changed in that regard but, after I left Edgewood in 1971, I went on to other assignments and left the whole program behind me.
After 1970, I knew the Army was winding down this research, and that I had done all I had set out to do with incapacitating agents. I let the subject slip to the back of my mind, since I had many other new things to do. After most of the documents from the 1960s were declassified most of the physicians involved had gone their separate ways and had no further interest in such work. But I believed that perhaps I should be putting all this together in some form, because no on else had done it. I had such an intention for quite a while, but my various other assignments–substance abuse treatment, drug education, and so on–prevented me from finding time to do it.
But it recently has become obvious that there is a reticence on the part of the government to talk much about what went on in the 1960s. Gradually it all seemed to fade from collective memory and the reports were relegated mostly to seldom-opened file cabinets.
Some people didn’t even know that there had been a program. One of the chemical officers was asked two decades later “What about that volunteer program back in the 60s?” and hiss response was “What program? There was no volunteer program.” The Army, of course, had not denied its existence, but it spent very little time telling anyone the details of what research had been done. I became upset because I felt that that the experimental work was extensive, detailed and important scientifically for the medical and pharmacological community to know about.
What pushed me past the edge of indecision, ultimately, was the 9/11 disaster, which soon led to a marked increase in public concern about chemical weapons, as well as with other so-called weapons of mass destruction. By the way, I make a point in my book that it’s really not accurate to refer to chemicals as weapons of mass destruction. In practical terms, only a small area could be effectively blanketed by an airborne chemical fog–certainly not a city or any large number of people (unless in a closed facility such as a domed stadium).
I finally sat down and started working on my book in 2002, at the age of seventy. It took me about four years to get it all together and I decided to publish it myself. Since then, although I’ve sent out less than 1,000 copies, it’s been purchased by readers in 16 or 17 countries, the latest being Russia.
David: Many people in the media have confused the Army Chemical Center’s research into psychedelics and deliriants in human volunteers, for use as non-lethal weapons, with the CIA’s MK-ULTRA project. Would you like to clarify the difference between these two programs?
Jim: They were entirely separate, and that was another stimulus to me to write this book. The public had acquired the notion that the CIA operations back in the 1950s–when they actually gave LSD to unwitting citizens–was somehow tied to the research that we did at Edgewood Arsenal with the same compound. In fact, it was not. The program that the CIA ran was so secret that most of the other members of the CIA didn’t know much about it. When it finally came to light, its leader, Dr. Gottlieb, arranged to destroy all the records, so it is no longer possible to know who actually received it surreptitiously.
Edgewood, on the other hand, had a fully transparent program that was approved by the Surgeon General, the Secretary of the Army and the Secretary of Defense, so the program was not any kind of secret. Furthermore, the MK-ULTRA program conducted by the CIA was aimed at seeking drugs that could produce actual changes in behavior. They thought that perhaps they could give LSD to someone and make him confess to something he was holding back, or carry out some mission he had been told to carry out while under the drug’s influence. None of this was achieved, fortunately, and while these illegal experiments in progress, our laboratories at Edgewood began a totally different approach to the development of chemicals that could temporarily incapacitate without any lasting effects. They would be used only for short-term military purposes, and there was no thought of changing personalities, or getting people to do anything they wouldn’t otherwise do.
In short, I wanted to articulate that these two programs were completely different, and I went to some length in my book to do so. I hope I succeeded because, really, I still feel quite proud of what we did while working for the Chemical Corps. As you can tell, I didn’t feel very good about the CIA work. A few years ago, in fact, I testified against the CIA in Federal Court as the sole expert witness for the prosecution. Much time was required before the trial writing reports and rebuttals on behalf of a former Deputy US Marshall. In my opinion, he was one of the “ordinary American citizens” who were given LSD covertly in the late 1950s, at the same time other black CIA operations were being carried out close to his place of work.
Although there were several other factors that pointed definitely to the covert use of LSD in that case the judge, unfortunately, didn’t buy it. She said it was possible, but not fully proven and the hearing was ended prematurely. His attorney took it to the Appeals Court and tried unsuccessfully to bring it to the Supreme Court, but so far has been unsuccessful. This poor guy’s life was ruined as a result of his erratic behavior after consuming the drug in a drink at a Christmas party. In short, he was an unwitting victim of the CIA’s unethical behavior, in my opinion, and experienced something he didn’t understand and couldn’t handle. That sort of deception is really the differentiation I have tried to make between the CIA activities and the Army’s later bona fide research with LSD.
David: What sort of reactions have you received from government officials and others who have read your book?http://mavericksofthemind.com/blog/?p=344http://mavericksofthemind.com/blog/?p=344
Jim: It’s interesting. Somehow, I seem to have managed to walk a line that didn’t require me to be a strong advocate in any particular direction. I wasn’t arguing for or against these incapacitating agents. But I thought we should be talking about them, and I thought the public ought to know what we did back there in the 1960s. My book is really a truthful story, supported by pharmacological data, and it was well received by the Chemical Corps people when they learned about it. A number of them bought copies and surprisingly, I was even invited back to Edgewood Arsenal after thirty years to give a keynote address at a major international science conference. It must have been favorably received because I was invited back the next year to give a similar presentation.
So, from the Chemical Corps’ perspective, my revelations of previously unpublished data seemed to present no problem. It was reviewed positively in military publications. It caught the eye of Steven Aftergood, who publishes Secrecy News Daily. USA Today, in turn, chose to write an illustrated article about me and the book. This was followed by a number of published reviews, mostly positive in tone.
The counterculture, on the other hand, which you might think would be skeptical of anything the Army approved of, also liked the book. I think that this was because of the informative content, including the details of the effects of LSD, THC, and other compounds that weren’t available anywhere else. A number of them have written me letters of congratulations and thanks, and have told me that I’ve preserved a bit of history.
Of course I feel good about it and this may sound funny, but I’ve also had no crank phone calls, no letters of protests. I’ve had very few negative comments about the book. There were some reservations expressed by some reviewers, mostly on the matter of informed consent. I argue, however, in some detail, that we really provided more informed consent than many research programs did in those days, but some people think that because we didn’t reveal the name of the drug, these weren’t truly ethical studies.
However, with regard to informed consent, subjects rarely felt they had been insufficiently informed. We created several hoops to jump through, before even being invited to spend two months with us, and consent forms were required not only on arrival, but before each and every test. Many volunteers were not averse to receiving two or more different agents. Some even agreed to undergo a high dose BZ test twice, to permit double blind procedures. Much preparation, in the form of baseline testing, preliminary discussion with the responsible physician and, if films or TV recordings were to be used, an additional consent in writing was required. Subjects spent a full day and the night before each procedure, during which they were familiarized with the test environment, and the performance and physiological measures required to establish reliable baselines. Thus, they had an extended opportunity to get to know the nurses and technicians who would be with them during the actual testing.
Although we adhered to the Nuremberg Code, if you read it carefully, it doesn’t really address the subject of testing drugs. There are two provisions that either require the responsible doctor to discontinue the experiment if it appears that it may be producing adverse effects, or to stop it immediately if the subject does not feel able to continue. If you give someone a drug, especially when you have no effective antidote available, there is no way to stop it until the drug itself wears off. So, obviously, the drafters of those provisions of the Nuremberg code weren’t thinking about drug testing but more probably of a physical procedure such as isolation, or tolerance to extreme cold–procedures that can indeed be interrupted at any time at the discretion of the physician or the subject.
While the general nature and duration of each test were explained in some detail, we were not allowed to reveal the name of the drug for security reasons (although subjects often figured out among themselves whether they were on a BZ or an LSD test). There was much paranoia about the Soviet Union learning from our experiments, so we used classified numbers to identify the agents being tested. Most of them had no ordinary names, so knowing their number or even their structure would be of no practical value if medical attention were required in the future.
We usually ended up with three to four times the number of volunteers that we could accept for any given two month assignment. Then, after they arrived, we examined and interviewed the subjects, and classified them into one of four levels. Only the “group A” individuals were considered eligible for the higher doses of psychoactive drugs. These would be soldiers who appeared to be unusually stable, based on their personal histories, MMPI profiles, lab tests and psychiatric interviews. We avoided volunteers who had a history of drug abuse or any criminal behavior. Overall, we had really superior subjects, with above average IQ’s, and half of them had at least a year of college education. In summary, they certainly weren’t “unwitting guinea pigs,” as so often described by the media.
David: One of the things that you hinted at in your book, just briefly, was that one of the LSD subjects might have experienced some sort of therapeutic benefit in one of your studies. What sort of therapeutic value do you think that psychedelic agents might have?
Jim: That’s a big subject. Actually, we weren’t looking for therapeutic effects. We weren’t trying to treat anyone. Nevertheless I observed one subject who seemed to undergo a therapeutic experience, as I detailed in a chapter. You might call his improved social behavior an unanticipated beneficial consequence.
In general, I think that the field of psychedelic drugs is a very fascinating one, and that such drugs ought to be studied with respect to their beneficial potential, rather than dishonestly outlawed as dangerous. It’s strange to me how vehement and irrational the prohibitory sanctions have become. With governmental approval, I think that some of the synthetic psychedelic drugs might indeed be useful medications. Actually, that’s starting to be recognized, in the case of MDMA (the drug called “Ecstasy” which Alexander Shulgin introduced to the public), and now a few limited therapeutic studies with LSD are also being carried out. LSD was, of course, widely studied and used as an aid to psychotherapy until it was made illegal in 1965.
That put a stop to what was a promising avenue of research into the psychological and, some would say, spiritual potential of psychedelics. The draconian prohibitions and penalties our own government has established are both outrageous and, in the opinion of many including myself, unconstitutional. These drugs are not addicting. Psychedelics are certainly not to be compared to cocaine, heroin, amphetamines, morphine, or even alcohol, as far as addiction potential and medical harm are concerned.
Psychedelic drugs do seem to have the ability to open up an individual’s awareness of many surprising things that are actually hiding in their heads. Major insights can occur and people are often astonished “at what’s in there.” Sometimes the world appears in a totally new and propitious light. Bad feelings that they’ve had about themselves, for example, can often be alleviated by realizing that we’re all part of one universe and one family of human beings. And these insights often seem to carry over, long after the drug effects are gone.
Many people have described LSD in particular (and perhaps some of the other psychedelic drugs that haven’t been tried in more than a few people) as having these unique properties. Some really treasure the experience, and believe that it reshapes their life in some way. LSD has even been found to alleviate the suffering of dying individuals. Aldous Huxley was one of the first to advocate its use for this purpose. LSD given to patients during the final weeks or months of their illness, often seems to provide a much more serene feeling about death. The dying patient can see that death is part of the life cycle and that he or she will somehow continue on as part of the universe, even after death. One can only hope the government will eventually allow scientists to continue research with psychedelic drugs and allow their appropriate use by physicians and qualified therapists!
David: What was your personal experience with LSD like, and how did it affect your perspective on the research that you were doing at Edgewood?
Jim: I have to say that it was somewhat anticlimactic. I took it because, at a conference I attended in 1965, it seemed that everyone working with LSD had taken it one or more times. So I thought, “Gee, I’ve never even tried it. I guess I ought to.” And, with a little bit of trepidation, I took a relatively small dose–80 micrograms–which wouldn’t be considered in the incapacitating range by our testing criteria. I took it under the same conditions that I required of the volunteers–namely, being in a padded cubicle, doing arithmetic tests every hour or so, having to Draw-a-Man periodically, fill in checklists, and have my blood pressure, temperature, pupil size, respirations and heart rate checked by the nurses at frequent intervals.
So, although I was more of a “witting guinea pig” (if you will), not much occurred in the way of new insights. In fact, I didn’t even have any marked perceptual distortions. At a higher dose, however, such effects would no doubt have been more prominent. So, personally, I was a bit disappointed in my “trip.” It did not, however, influence my overall view of the research we were doing. In fact, it reassured me that an LSD trip was something that one could actually go through and emerge intact. It helped corroborate my beliefs about the safety of the drugs that we were studying. They weren’t harming anyone as far as we could tell and we were learning much of value from testing them.
David: Did any of the subjects who were given LSD at Edgewood ever have anything resembling a mystical experience?
Jim: In this setting, I don’t recall hearing anyone say he did. The men certainly had a variety of experiences, but I’m not sure that the term “mystical” would apply. We used fairly low doses, for one thing. As I described in the book, the responses varied from being highly amused to being fascinated with the amazing otherworldly colors that they saw. Subjects did sometimes become irritated with the routine questions being asked, and sometimes they became paranoid about the whole situation. But I don’t recall any so-called “mystical” or “spiritual enlightenment” experiences. I think a lot depends on the setting and the intent of the study. If you give a drug to see how people will perform under the influence, then you mainly tend to ask “how well can you perform under the influence?”
If you give LSD to someone in a therapeutic setting–as with Cary Grant, who took it more than a hundred times as an adjunct to psychotherapy, as did many other luminaries in that era–then you tend to get more reports of a spiritual nature. Some degree of suggestion may play a part, by the way, but I don’t want to pour cold water on the notion that these drugs can indeed be very enlightening. LSD, for example doesn’t always produce a mystical result, but frequently it does, as testified to by many users. Some report it provides a new view of the world–a sense of belonging to a larger system. Some even believe they have been able to be briefly in touch with God or, for that matter, the entire universe. These are undoubtedly very memorable experiences. Although it doesn’t always happen, I do believe such an epiphany happens often enough to justify responsible use of such drugs. These drugs may also provide an enhanced basis for psychotherapy. But, of course, one can’t expect them to answer all of one’s psychological needs.
David: How do you envision the future of chemical warfare?
Jim: Oh boy, I don’t know. As mentioned, there’s strong opposition to chemical warfare agents in any form, including the incapacitating agents. In 1966, I exchanged letters with Matthew Meselson, a leading anti-proliferationist. His opinions haven’t changed much–he presents pretty much the same point of view now as he did then. We did have a cordial exchange. He argued that incapacitating agents might be okay in themselves, but he feared they would open the door to the use of more destructive chemicals. This is basically the familiar slippery slope argument so frequently invoked to discredit some new strategy. It was used by a Republican administration to justify the Viet Nam war, for example. Recently, however, I did seem to succeed in persuading a few people, active in the anti-proliferation movement, that incapacitating agents perhaps could be used safely, and could possibly save lives.
Ironically, this was clearly demonstrated by the Russian successful use of a fentanyl-type gas in November, 2002 which enabled them to rescue more than 80% of the 800 members of a Moscow theater audience taken over by Chechen terrorists. Gas was apparently delivered through the air conditioning system and through holes in the floor and roof, putting everyone into a narcotized unconscious state. Then, 30-40 minutes later, special troops entered and started bringing people out. The doctors used naloxone, the favorite antidote for morphine-like compounds, to reverse the narcosis. I think that overall it was a marvelous result, but, unfortunately, it’s been looked at by some skeptics as a kind of a tragedy. They say, look, 130 people died. Well, I think that 130 is better than 800, and it’s also better, as a secondary consideration, not to have to blow up a beautiful theater.
Whether this dramatic use of an incapacitating agent is going to be picked up by anyone, including the United States, is difficult to predict, because we’ve signed (somewhat foolishly, I believe) the 1993 Chemical Warfare Convention treaty. The treaty outlaws the use of any chemical weapon during any aggressive military action.
Unfortunately, perhaps for political reasons, we were allowed to tie our own hands. Even tear gas, for example, is a forbidden chemical weapon, except when used for police actions in one’s own territory. I believe that has to be changed. Either we have to draw ourselves out of the treaty, which would necessarily take quite a bit of guts, or we have to persuade the world that some chemical agents are less lethal than conventional weapons and that people can be spared death through their proper use in selected circumstances. I’d certainly like to see it go that way.
Colonel John Alexander, an unconventional weapons consultant to the Department of Defense, has long been arguing forcefully for the use of incapacitating agents. He read my book and told me: “You’re on the right track.” Alexander, of course, is primarily an expert in physical incapacitating agents, such as sticky foam, bright lights, snares, nets and other devices that can control crowds or stop vehicles. He suggests many ways to neutralize enemy troops without killing them. Since he’s not a physician or pharmacologist, he claims less expertise in chemical weapons. John has proven to be an ally, supporting my views in writing, hoping to promote my book. But he represents a small minority among decision makers in Washington. There is still a great deal of reluctance to talk about, or underwrite, further research with chemical incapacitating agents. Even if there were a renascence of such an effort, there is, alas no longer a volunteer program, and no longer any proper facility in which to do the required testing.
The latest pharmacological proposals that have being advanced are kind of ridiculous, because the drugs suggested are generally far more lethal than the ones we studied, at least in terms of safety margins. But it’s sort of been decreed that we can’t go back to what was done in the Sixties. A white paper–written under contract by three university pharmacologists–contains almost no reference to anything done in the 1960s, other than a passing mention of BZ. These professors are younger than I am and perhaps have little familiarity with work accomplished 40-50 years ago. The chemicals they suggest just don’t make practical sense. They include Prozac, Valium, or perhaps some enzyme or hormone in the brain that might reduce the tendency to fight. None appear to be feasible, and I doubt any of them will ever become acceptable agents.
So I think there would have to be a return to a more rational approach. I hope my book can stimulate reconsideration of the drugs we abandoned in 1973, despite their impressive safety and effectiveness. Whether this will ever happen, who knows?
David: Do you think that the human species will ever learn to live in peace, without war?
Jim: It’s not likely, based on history. Aggression seems to be built into the human condition, as some innate defensive response to those who try to either hurt us or take what we own. It’s built into the biology of the people in this world, and will remain there until we can find some way of modifying that biology. I’m speaking now, not just about pharmacology, Perhaps through genetic engineering we may be able to reduce aggressive tendencies and help people become less inclined to kill, hurt, steal power, or take territory from other people. It’s only a possibility. But to me, it’s science that offers the one shining hope for the future of mankind. Just how that will evolve is very difficult to say.
David: In general, are you optimistic about the future, or do you think that the human species is doomed to extinction?
Jim: I’m optimistic. I think that there will be an increasing number of new technologies coming along in the near future. They’re coming now at a very rapid pace, enabling us to look into the brain more closely, for example, and better understand what’s going on. And perhaps we will eventually be able to connect up those events with behavior and mental attitudes. I’m not as pessimistic as many scientists are. I think, yeah, we might blow ourselves up–but we might also find a way to calm down and live peacefully. That’s my hope–through science.
David: What do you personally think happens to consciousness after death, and what is your perspective on the concept of God?
Jim: I don’t know how to answer that. I definitely have a personal belief in God. It’s not within a particular religious framework, although I grew up in a religious family. I feel a personal connection with God that I don’t understand. I’ve met people who express similar thoughts. They sense a higher power, but they can’t really describe it. The idea that there may be a creative intelligence in our universe gives me some hope that maybe, as one person put it, “God invented the universe to discover his own identity.” That’s a challenging and difficult concept, I suppose, but it appeals to me.
David: What are you currently working on?
Jim: Right now, I am in state of suspended animation. My book is out there, and it’s selling to some extent. I hope for sufficient energy to promote it, but I’m not emotionally tied to it. I have other interests, totally unrelated to science. I like to do video editing, and have a vast collection of pictures and films, so I’m not expecting to write anything significant in the near future. I’m willing to talk at a few meetings and I still get invitations. I’m very happy to accept them, but I don’t foresee myself as an agent of change beyond what I’ve done in the form of a book.
Decoding the Cosmic Serpent:
By David Jay Brown
Anthropologist Jeremy Narby, Ph.D. is the author of The Cosmic Serpent, Intelligence in Nature, and is the coeditor of Shamans Through Time. He received his doctorate in anthropology from Stanford University, and spent several years living with the Ashaninca in the Peruvian Amazon, cataloging indigenous uses of rainforest resources to help combat ecological destruction. Narby sponsored an expedition to the rainforest for biologists and other scientists to examine indigenous knowledge systems, and the utility of (the hallucinogenic jungle brew) ayahuasca in gaining knowledge. Narby has said that the information that shamans access “has a stunning correspondence with molecular biology,” and that one might be able to gain biomolecular information in ayahuasca visions.
Since 1989, Narby has been working as the Amazonian projects director for the Swiss NGO, Nouvelle Planète. Narby’s bookThe Cosmic Serpent is one of my all-time favorite books. It’s a revelation-after-revelation, “aha!”-filled scientific adventure/detective story about why the image of the serpent appears so commonly in shamanic traditions around the world, and why this relates to the double helix structure of the DNA molecule. I interviewed Jeremy on December 18, 2008. Narby is unusually articulate, and he maintains a good balance of open-mindedness and skepticism. He has a quick analytical mind and appears to enjoy debating intellectual ideas. We spoke about the relationship between ecology and ayahuasca use by indigenous peoples in the Amazon, intelligence in nature, and what he has learned from his experience with ayahuasca.
David: What originally inspired your interest in anthropology?
Jeremy: I suppose the real answer is a psychoanalytical one. I grew up in a family with a culturally-mixed background–with Irish, Egyptian, English blood–in the suburbs of Montreal, in a French-speaking neighborhood, but with an English-speaking family. Then, when I was ten, we moved to Switzerland, to another bilingual town. I became a foreigner at that point, and have been since. I grew up as a English-speaking Quebecer in French-speaking Switzerland, right on the frontier with German-speaking Switzerland. By the time I got to be eighteen I could feel a lot of cultural diversity inside me, and I suppose that I was drawn to anthropology, which studies cultural diversity, first and foremost to understand myself and how I stood in the world. In other words–Was I Canadian, Swiss, Irish or Egyptian? So that’s what I think drove me toward studying anthropology.
David: Can you talk a little about what originally drew you to the Amazon as a doctoral student, and about your anthropological work and ecological projects there?
Jeremy: Thank you for asking that, because it allows me to add the political dimension to the psychoanalytical. It’s true that by the time I became a doctoral student in anthropology I was interested in one overarching question, which is–Why are there rich people and poor people in the world? There seems to be enough material wealth to go around for everybody. So that lead me to be interested in what was called “Third World development,” and a professor at anthropology at Stanford pointed out that indigenous peoples were the Achilles’ heel of all the different theories of development–be they capitalist, socialist, or communist.
This was back in the 1980s, when there still was communism. So, in other words, if one really wanted to understand Third World development, and understand the relations between rich and poor countries, it was important to look at a case where development was being carried out in territories of indigenous peoples, because this is where the contradictions would be greatest. So it was for theoretical reasons, and also for a desire to critique Western theories of development. World bank-financed visions of development in those days–in the Seventies and Eighties, in places like the Amazon, for example–consisted of building roads into the rainforests, which they called “jungle” at that point.
They confiscated the territories of the indigenous people that had lived there for a long time, saying that they didn’t know how to use their resources rationally, and then gave the land to individuals with a market mentality, so that they could cut down the trees and do cattle ranching. This was actually deforestation, but they called it “development.” Not only was it not socially appropriate, and grossly violated the rights of the indigenous people who were there, but it was even ecologically and economically inappropriate. Cutting the rainforest down on that scale was simply a recipe for creating sterile savannas. So there was enough there that called for a politically-engaged anthropology, and that’s what took me to the Peruvian Amazon in 1984.
David: What type of relationship do you see between psychedelics and ecology, and do you see psychedelics playing a role to help increase ecological awareness?
Jeremy: In the spirit of dialogue, I would quibble with the question a little bit, because I think that in as much as psychedelics have a relation with ecology, its via people. So people are lacking in the question. Then, I think that psychedelics have different effects on different people. So the short answer to your question is that it depends, and if you could make your question more precise, I could advance with it. I don’t just think that psychedelics–as a group of substances–are any sort of instant ecology-awareness pills.
David: Perhaps you could talk a little about the relationship between ayahuasca use in the Amazon and how this effects the ecological relationships there?
Jeremy: Okay, that’s getting a bit more precise. But, once again, I think that by asking the question that way it does omit who is taking the ayahuasca, what ayahuasca it is, and where they are taking it. I think that the ayahuasca experience is also a function of who’s doing it, where they’re doing it, and how they’re doing it–beyond set and setting, which is just obvious. So, in other words, who are we talking about? For example, the indigenous people of the Amazon and what we know about them historically? Or how ayahuasca has impacted on their eco-cosmologies? That could be a subject of a whole book, but it’s certainly a precise question. You want me to talk about that precise question?
David: Yes, and maybe you could also talk a bit about the worldwide ecology movement, and whether you think that’s in any way related to people who have used psychedelics? A lot of people think that psychedelic experiences have been an important part of the inspiration for the ecology movement.
Jeremy: Yes, it’s true that one runs into quite a few people in the broad ecology movement who say that their engagement has been souped up by ayahuasca, and I guess I would include myself in that bunch.
David: So maybe you could also address a little bit about the use of ayahuasca by indigenous people in the Amazon, and how that effected their relationship with their environment?
Jeremy: I think the way that they look at it is like this. There is a level of reality that is parallel to our own, but that we don’t see with our, let’s say, “normal eyes,” but in certain states of mind you can see it. Ayahuasca is known by the people who use it to make the invisible visible, and first and foremost you take ayahuasca to see, and to see what you normally don’t see. So, in their view, one could say that ayahuasca is an important tool for knowing the world, as microscopes have been for biologists. It’s an absolutely central tool in approaching an otherwise invisible level of nature.
So, in their view, ayahuasca–but also other plant teachers like tobacco–have enabled them to have an ongoing conversation with the powers in nature, entities or essences corresponding to the different species. For them, ayahuasca is the telephone, but the person on the other end is the whole assembly of nature. So what’s important is not the telephone; it’s the conversation that you have with the other species. It would seem that these indigenous societies have been dialoguing–at least in the visions of their shamans–with the essences of plants, animals, and ecosystems for millennia. And they view of nature not as an object—but as a subject, or a series of subjects, with whom you negotiate if you want game and health.
So yes, ayahuasca is central to the eco-cosmology of many indigenous Amazonian peoples. It is that which enables communication, but that doesn’t mean that it needs to be worshipped. Once again, the importance of the conversation, in their view, is because nature really is a bunch of subjectivities, and it really is important to communicate with them, because we’re on the same planet as them. So, how the human community negotiates its relation with other species is precisely what shamans negotiate traditionally in their visions attained using these plants. That’s why these plants are central to their eco-cosmology.
But I guess the reason why I object to the general nature of the question about psychedelics and ecology is that it’s like the question about psychedelics and creativity. If only it sufficed to take psychedelics and everybody could play the guitar like Jimi Hendrix–but it doesn’t happen that way. Some people have taken psychedelics and have done terrible things. Likewise, there are a lot of people in the ayahuasca movement, and they may talk about this and that, but some of them lead pretty un-ecological lifestyles, it seems to me. Unfortunately, there are Westerners that are demonstrating that it’s possible to turn ayahuasca into a kind of a drug, really. So if only everyone who was guzzling ayahuasca became an ecological activist, at least it would be easy to answer the question.
David: I was just wondering whether you’ve seen a pattern of any kind. It seems to me like psychedelics, in general, are basically boundary-dissolving, nonspecific brain amplifiers.
Jeremy: Exactly. So if somebody’s got an ecological sensitivity, then it will amplify it. But if they’re power-hungry, then it will amplify that too. So depicting ayahuasca as this magical thing that draws people to understand nature better, and then to become healing-oriented, would actually be misleading. It’s way more complicated than that. One of the loops that’s missing is that it depends entirely on the individuals, and there’s a lot of variation in the individuals out there.
Another thing that I would like to say about this is that the more I’ve been able to get into the ayahuasca realm with indigenous Amazonian shamans guiding me, the deeper my respect for their knowledge has gotten. So, obviously, the more you really respect people, and actually look up to them, the more it enhances, well, at least my desire to be useful to them. In other words, it galvanizes me as an activist.
David: Is what you’re describing, what you think is the most important thing that Western civilization can learn from indigenous shamanism?
Jeremy: Well, that’s speculative. I’m enjoying arguing with your questions; that’s what I think questions are for. I don’t know what Western society can learn. I mean, for the moment, it’s had a hooligan, vampire-like behavior, and it’s sucked out what it wanted to suck out–mainly for material benefit–and just spat out the rest. Look at what it did to the Inca temples. It just melted them into gold. And look at how it’s treated shamanism for the last five centuries. It said it was the devil’s work, or balderdash, and then went on to label shamans as psychotics. We’ve taken the shamanic plants like tobacco, and look at what we do with them, we turn them into “drugs” that cause harm to health and create addiction. Look at what we’ve done to coca: turned it into a nasty drug.
So there’s been this sort of, I don’t know, ghoulish mercantile touch to what Western cultures have done to indigenous cultures. Yes, it’s about time it changed, but let’s see some action. I don’t want to sit here speculating on the sidelines as to what we could learn. I want to incarnate learning. I want to see more people learning, and I don’t want to be there saying, oh, if only we could do this, then maybe we could all change, and so forth. Enough already of this telling Western people what they could benefit even more from! Let’s start thinking about reciprocity. Let’s become lucid about the last five hundred years of history, and what we’ve imposed. Let’s break with it, denounce our own behavior, and show something different.
David: What are some of the primary things that you think people should be focusing on to help restore ecological balance on our planet?
Jeremy: I’m not any kind of expert on how to re-equilibrate Western lifestyles; there’s a whole bunch of people who talk about that. But I think that the more that we can move away from using hydrocarbons, and the smaller our personal imprints can be, the better. The less light bulbs and everything else that we use, the better. But, nevertheless, here we are having a conversation over a telephone, using tape recorders. The very existence of this conversation in text is the fruit of the electric world. Because our world seems irremediably electric, there aren’t any easy solutions.
But I think that the more of us that can sit with, let’s say, both forms of knowledge, the better. In other words, technological knowledge, and let’s call the other shamanic knowledge, for telegraphic sake. We’re not going to be throwing out the baby with the bath water. We’re not going to get rid of science and technology. On the contrary, it’s too good to throw out. But, obviously, it needs complementing. It needs critiquing and controlling, let’s say.
I think that, for example, one thing that’s also really clear for me–but it’s also a matter of opinion–is the view that nature is just an object, or a bunch of commodities that we can just exploit it as we wish, has led us to the ecological situation that we’re in. I think that it’s been a powerful way of coming to dominate nature, treating all those different beings as if they were objects. One can hold that gaze for 2,300 years, and that’s what we’ve just done, but that doesn’t mean that it’s right. You can treat beings like objects, because, actually, beings are objects–but they’re more than just objects, and treating them like just objects is nixing a whole important part of their existence.
So I think that getting away from the objective view of nature, and moving toward a deeper understanding of the other beings with whom we share the planet, would probably be a good move. And that would precisely be a combination of knowledges, using science and shamanism. I mean, in as much as you accept that shamans have some kind of dialogue in their visions with entities that represent other species on this planet, one could consider including them on bioethics committees.
David: Why do you think that nature is intelligent, and do you see any teleology in the evolutionary process?
Jeremy: That’s two questions.
David: You don’t think there’s a link between the two? This is in contrast to the blind-chance view of evolution as a random process, which most evolutionary biologists adhere to.
Jeremy: One question at a time. Why do I feel that nature is intelligent? Well, by asking the question, it implies that you may feel that nature is not intelligent, right? I’ve written a whole book about this particular subject. [Intelligence in Nature, Tarcher, 2006.] You’ve got to examine or unpack the concept of intelligence. It turns out that most of the definitions of intelligence have been given in exclusively human terms, and so–by definition–you can’t apply the terms to other species. So “intelligence in nature” is actually a contradiction in terms, if you’re strict with words, because nature is defined in opposition to the human, and intelligence is defined as exclusively human.
But that just shows that we have concepts that separate us from nature, and it’s not so much nature that lacks intelligence, but our own concepts. So you say, okay, there are so many different definitions, because Western cultures have been obsessed with putting a line between human beings and other species, and one of the properties that was supposed to separate us from other species was intelligence. It was supposed to be one of the exclusively human traits, along with tool-making, abstraction, and so forth. And so, as such, it was supposed to be one of the human treasures. It became this very political thing, and that’s why there are so many definitions–because people fought for decades over how to define this human treasure called “intelligence.”
So here we are. But now, through recent biology, we are beginning to realize just how stunningly similar we are–at least on a physical-chemical level, down to the gene sequences, down to how the brains are constructed–to all these other species, and that it’s really true that we have a kinship with bacteria, amoebas, and so forth. When you look into a blade of glass–which is what we’ve been able to do for the last ten to twenty years–we see that, as it goes about its business being a blade of grass–it integrates information from the outside world. It transduces this external information into electrochemical information, and there are signaled conversations between the cells, as the plant integrates the information, makes decisions, and then enacts them.
Then, if you intercept these molecular signals that go between vegetal cells in the blade of glass, you see that many of them are identical to the molecular signals used by our own neurons. So a plant may not have a brain, but it acts like one. If you look at the etymology of the word “intelligence” you find that it comes from “inter” and “legere,” which means to “choose between,” and this implies the capacity to make decisions. Well, it turns out that if you look at how biologists describe how individual cells behave, they are forever integrating information, making decisions, communicating, and acting according to the information received.
So if you use a simple definition of intelligence, you can find intelligence all the way down to the behavior of individual proteins, and this is what scientists have been discovering in their labs over the last ten or twenty years. We’re even talking about single-celled organisms, like slime molds and amoebas, but also simple invertebrates like bees. Bees are capable of abstraction. They have small brains of about one million neurons, but it’s been demonstrated that they can handle abstract concepts. I mean, it just goes on and on. The list of characteristics that are supposed to be exclusive to humans have more or less melted like snow in the sun. So, meanwhile, we know that we’ve evolved and are part of nature. So how could nature just be a bunch of stupid objects, or machines, if we ourselves are intelligent? On the contrary, it would seem that the whole edifice of biological life here in the biosphere is infused with intelligence–and we’re part of it.
So, now, do you want me to move on to teleology from there?
David: Yes, I’m curious how you view the evolutionary process from this perspective.
Jeremy: See, you may have noted that in this whole discourse I’m trying to stick to the facts that have been established. So what’s going on inside of a blade of grass is what researchers have discovered and published in peer-reviewed journals over the last ten to fifteen years. The fact that we have many genetic sequences that are identical to those found in the bacterium or the banana has been known for ten years.
So there’s no teleology in my discourse about intelligence in nature; I’m just sticking to what science is generating, as far as data. You can put a single-celled slime mold in a maze and it can solve it. That’s a fact. We don’t know how it does that. It doesn’t have a brain; it only has one cell. But we can see through its behavior that it can figure out a maze. Now let’s say that we are detecting intelligence in nature, depending on how we define the world “intelligence,” but we’re detecting more than a mechanical thermostat-like behavior, we are detecting plasticity and foresight. Well, okay, so does that mean there’s a goal in nature? Well that’s another question. That’s why I want to separate these two questions.
David: I see.
Jeremy: Doing teleology is doing theology. I think there are parts of the neo-Darwinian approach that are actually quite theological. Some people, without realizing it, go on to theological terrain.
David: I don’t think that teleology implies theology.
Jeremy: Well, teleology implies a goal–and so as soon as you start talking about a goal, I think that you are a crossing a line and are stepping onto theological territory. That’s why I don’t go there. I’m an agnostic, and I am interested in dealing what can be known. So, for example, take the question of the origin of life. There are at least a hundred thousand scenarios possible, none of them testable. Any certitude about how life started is a belief. You can talk about Stanley Miller and his test tubes, or any of the different RNA worlds, or whatever. All of that, for the moment, is of the order of belief. It’s not of the order of demonstrable knowledge. But they are a lot of people in the scientific world who don’t seem to be aware of this. This is actually an epistemological question.
If somebody says “I believe that life began on Earth by chance, in a spark collision, in a wet pool 3.5 billion years ago,” that’s fine, but that’s a belief. You’re welcome to believe it, like you’re also welcome to believe that a guy with a grey beard did it. But as an agnostic I know that I don’t know, so I don’t even go there. There’s a lot of other business at hand in the, let’s say, verifiable world.
David: Can you talk a little about biophoton emissions from the DNA molecule and how you think this might relate to our experience of consciousness?
Jeremy: I’ve written about that, and I don’t really have too much to add to what I’ve already written. It’s not like I’m a biophoton specialist. I follow, as I can, the research on the subject, but it moves slowly and remains marginal, unfortunately. I would like to know a lot more about biophotons in our brains, and just what relationship they might have with the consciousness we actually perceive.
David: What are some of the most important lessons that you’ve personally learned from your ayahuasca experiences?
Jeremy: Well, heck, the whole thing! I guess the first thing was that when I was a twenty-five year old whippersnapper from the suburbs, who had studied chemistry in high school, and thought I knew what reality was, the ayahuasca experience opened my eyes to the fact that there was a whole level of reality that one didn’t normally see, that there was something that seemed associated with plants, animals, and the forest world–that had a mind-boggling, well intelligence about it. It taught me things, and showed me how stupid I was. It showed me how anthropocentric I was. In French, one says to “deniaisé,” which means that it made me less stupid–fast.
It also made me see that there was something there that the materialist-rationalist perspective, which thinks it’s so smart, actually didn’t get and couldn’t get. That kind of defined it, and that made me listen to the indigenous people even more. I just knew there was something there that flew in the face of our categories, and that needed more investigating. And by investigating ayahuasca one was clearly investigating the indigenous approach to knowledge–but also plants and animals themselves, or nature. In other words, thinking about what it is to be a human being, and what it is to be a human being in the rainforest is to be immersed in this breathing, hooting, scratching environment that’s clearly alive. I mean, if you think nature is stupid, all you got do is go into the rainforest at night and listen. It sounds like a bunch of loud electronic musicians.
David: What do you think happens to consciousness after death?
Jeremy: In brief, I don’t know, but I hope to see you at the bar.
David: What are you currently working on?
Jeremy: I’m continuing to study the world and it’s not getting any less crazy.
Learning from Ageless Animals:
By David Jay Brown
John Guerin is the founder and director of the AgelessAnimals Project–also known as the Centenarian Species and Rockfish Project. This long-range research project involves investigators at fourteen universities around the world who study animals that don’t seem to age.
There are certain species of rockfish, whales, turtles, and other animals that are known to live for over two hundred years without showing any signs of aging–a phenomenon known to biogerontologists as “negligible senescence.” No one knows for sure how long these animals can live, but to date there have not been any observed increase in mortality or any decrease in reproductive capacity due to age. Striking examples are a 109 year old female rockfish that was captured in the wild while swimming around with fertilized eggs, and a hundred-plus year old male whale that was harpooned while it was having sex. The purpose of the AgelessAnimals Project is to understand why these animals don’t seem to age and then to apply that understanding to human longevity.
Guerin is an experienced project manager, who conceived of the AgelessAnimals project and orchestrates all of the studies. The two principal advisors to this project are Dr. Leonard Hayflick and Dr. Aubrey de Grey, both of whom were also interviewed for the Mavericks of Medicine collection. Dr. Hayflick, discoverer of the “Hayflick limit” of cellular senescence, states that “Guerin’s project is not only unique, but probes an area of almost total neglect in biogerontology, yet an area with more promise to deliver valuable data than, perhaps, any other.”
When I asked Dr. de Grey about the importance of studying ageless animals he said, “All organisms with organs that rely on the indefinite survival of individual non-dividing cells (such as neurons in the brain) should age, though some, including humans, age very slowly. Some species do even better–we cannot yet measure their rate of aging at all–and studying them may well reveal ways to slow our own aging.”
In addition to coordinating and orchestrating the AgelessAnimals project, Guerin lectures regularly on the subject of ageless animals. To find out more about Guerin’s work and the AgelessAnimals Project visit their Web site: www.agelessanimals.org.
I interviewed John Guerin on March 14, 2005. John seemed eager and excited to discuss his project with me. We spoke about some of the latest research that’s going on with long-lived animals, why this type of research has been neglected for so long, and how studying ageless animals might help us to understand the aging process better and extend the human lifespan.
David: What inspired the AgelessAnimals Project?
John: Back in 1995 I began looking into biotech, biogerontology, and the studies of aging. I read many different books, articles, and scientific papers. The turning point came when I read Dr. Leonard Hayflick’s book How and Why We Age. Dr. Hayflick had a chapter called “Some Animals Age, Some Do Not,” and I thought, Wow, now that’s interesting. I’d heard rumors and old wive’s tales about how some animals live for an extraordinarily long time, but this was the first time that I had come across that information from a scientific source. So I started researching the literature on long-lived animals, and I found out that there’s very little known. On my Web site I have some references on what I found.
I met Dr. Hayflick at a Gerontological Society of America meeting in November of ‘95, and I told him about my project management background. I said, I’d like to join whoever is working in this area, and I asked him who is. His answer was, “Nobody is, but they should be.” So I tried to get something going on my own. I did a lot of research on different animals. I spent about a year looking at koi–the fancy Japanese carp–and it’s very likely that they do live quite a long time, at least over fifty years. They were reputed to live over two hundred years, but the readings were based on scales, and those are not accurate. So they didn’t turn out to be a good candidate to study.
Then in 1997 I got some data from the Alaska Fish and Game. There’s a chart at the bottom of my Web page with a rockfish on it that shows ages for different rockfish that were caught off the coast of Alaska, and the range is between twelve and 107 years. Now, that’s a randomly caught sampling–it wasn’t like they were trying to get older individuals. Those were the ones that fishermen caught and were going to people’s dinner tables that evening. So when I realized that individuals at those ages were available I became very interested. We got samples from the Alaska Fish and Game in 1997. I say “we” because by then I had a couple of researchers at Oregon State University, including the Linus Pauling Institute interested in looking at the rockfish. So the Alaska Fish and Game sent us five older rockfish. After we got the aging results, it turned out that the the youngest rockfish that they sent us was 79 years old, and the oldest was a 109 year old female that still had eggs.
David: That’s extraordinary.
John: Yeah, and kind of sad. How long would this fish have lived if it wasn’t caught? It didn’t die of old age. It was fertile and still going strong in the ocean at 109 when they caught it. So that helped us to focus the project on rockfish. We have had one study on turtles. Whales are a very fascinating subject too, because they’re warm-blooded mammals like we are, and they’ve now been documented to live over two hundred years of age.
David: How does one determine the age of these animals?
John: The most common technique for aging rockfish is the analysis of annual growth rings in the otolith, or ear bone. Basically, rockfish have incremental growth, so under a microscope their growth rings can be counted. There has been independent validation of this, and two recent international symposia have focused entirely on the importance of otolith measurement in fish life history studies. In turtles, the determination of minimum age is relatively straightforward, using tag and recapture methods. Dr. Jeffrey Bada at UC San Diego Scripps did the aging analysis for the whale study. For this study the whales’ ages were determined by using the aspartic acid racemization technique. In this technique, age is estimated based on intrinsic changes in the isomeric forms of aspartic acid in the eye lens nucleus. The references for these studies are on my Web site.
David: What is the goal of the Ageless Animals Project?
John: Quite simply, the goal is to understand the genetic and biochemical processes that long-lived animals use to retard aging. These long-lived animals have what’s technically called “negligible senescence,” as defined by Caleb Finch at the University of Southern California in Longevity, Senescence, and the Genome (1995).
David: What is negligible senescence?
John: Basically, this refers to an animal species that doesn’t show any significant signs of aging as it grows older. Unlike humans and mammals other than whales, there’s no decrease in reproduction after maturity. There’s also no notable increase in mortality rate with age, but that’s a little harder to prove. I’ve been talking with a statistician and he’s asking, how do you know? To do a study of this type would take a couple of hundred years to complete. But compared to us there’s no noted increase in mortality rate. I mean, if you are ninety years old, you’re much more likely to die next year then you are if you’re only twenty years old. But we don’t seem to see any increase in mortality with rockfish and several of these other animals over time.
David: Why do you think these animals can live for so long without showing any signs of aging?
John: The purpose of the project is to understand why, and how to apply it to extending the healthy lifespan of humans. My background is in business project management; I have a project management professional certification. I’m not a bioresearcher, a biochemist, or a biogerontologist–but I’m the one who organizes it all, and gets everyone involved. I get the researchers the samples and all that.
Actually, I thought I had a better idea about why these animals have negligible senescence when I started this project ten years ago. But it’s hard to say. Back then we didn’t know whales lived that long. That whales can live for over two hundred years was just discovered in the last five years. Up until then we thought that humans lived longer than any other mammal. So why certain animals would live much longer than others, and much longer than we do as a matter of fact–pretty much double what we’ve known humans to live–we don’t understand.
There are some people who think that this can’t be so, that this would violate the evolutionary theory of senescence, because nature doesn’t select for longevity. But that’s not necessarily true, because what’s commonly seen is that there’s just such a high mortality rate in nature. Even for humans, probably before two thousand years ago, we didn’t live very long. We were hunted by tigers and wild animals, and traits of longevity, presumably, weren’t selected for. But if these animals, like the rockfish, can be 109 years old and still be reproductive, nature is going to allow those genes to keep contributing to the gene pool, so that
The Frontiers of Natural Medicine:
By David Jay Brown
Jonathan Wright, M.D. is one of world’s leading experts on natural medicine, nutritional supplements, and bioidentical hormone replacement therapy. He is the medical director of the Tahoma Clinic in Kent, Washington, and he has treated over 2,000 patients with natural hormone replacement since 1982.
Dr. Wright graduated from Harvard University, and he received his medical education at the University of Michigan Medical School. He later specialized in family practice and nutritional medicine. Dr. Wright was a monthly medical columnist forPrevention magazine from 1976 to 1986 and for Let’s Live magazine from 1986 to 1996. Since 1994, he’s written Nutrition & Healing newsletter (1-800-851-7100, www.wrightnewsletter.com )
He is also the bestselling author or coauthor of numerous health books, including Natural Hormone Replacement For Women Over 45, Dr. Wright’s Guide to Healing With Nutrition, Maximize Your Vitality & Potency for Men Over 40, and Dr. Wright’s Book of Nutritional Therapy.
Since 1982 Dr. Wright and his colleague Dr. Alan Gaby having been teaching an annual seminar called “Nutritional Therapy in Medical Practice,” based on their experience in medical practice and personal research libraries, which contains over 45,000 medical journal articles dating from 1920 to the present. He also publishes an informative monthly newsletter. To find out more about Dr. Wright’s work visit: www.tahoma-clinic.com.
I spoke with Dr. Wright on July 14, 2005. He is a very enthusiastic and entertaining speaker. We spoke about preventing heart disease and osteoporosis, the basics of vitamin therapy, how people can improve their sexual performance, and the importance of treating hormonal decline with hormones that are identical to those found naturally in the human body.
David: What inspired your interest in medicine?
Dr. Wright: I’m not sure. I decided to go into medicine when I was eight years old. I recall a conversation with my parents about the whole thing, and the choices got narrowed down to law or medicine. For whatever reason, I decided that there are too damn many attorneys, and that they spend their time fighting, so I thought I’d go into medicine.
David: Can you talk a little about why you think that hormone replacement therapy is so important for both men and women as they age, and why do you think that taking natural hormones is better than taking synthetic hormones?
Dr. Wright: Hormone replacement therapy is especially important for men and women as they grow older at this particular time in the history of the planet and of the human race. Hormone replacement therapy is something that, in many areas of the world, simply wasn’t even possible until about the 12th Century in China. But even though that was many centuries ago, as far as we know, there have been people on the planet for hundreds of thousands of years, perhaps millions of years, and no one could do hormone replacement for most of that time.
Some people have pointed out that the average person’s life span was shorter in previous centuries, and perhaps people didn’t need hormone replacement because they didn’t live to the point where they needed it, and that may be true in some areas of the world. But we have not only Western Biblical references, but we have other writings that refer to some quite ancient people, in the past, who seem to have gotten by without hormone replacement, and lived to a good long age. The name Methusala, of course, always comes to mind. Then there are some names that–not being a being a Chinese speaker–I can’t pronounce. But in Chinese writing, folks who are said to have lived for two or three hundred years, and it doesn’t appear that they took hormone replacement.
But the differences that may necessitate more hormone replacement in our time than in prior times, include what has happened to the food supply, the water supply, and the 50,000 new chemicals that are introduced into the environment every year–without knowing whether they’re safe or not. There has been terrific demineralizations of the soil, chemical additives to the water, such as chlorine and fluoride, and then there’s all the electromagnetic radiations that folks are exposed to that just simply didn’t exist two hundred years ago. The list could go on and on, and we don’t want do a treatise here on all the enormous environmental changes that have happened. But while we were living in this vastly changing environment, human biochemical systems remained the same.
Therefore, we’re seeing a tremendous rise in such things as Alzheimer’s disease and senile dementia, which was, of course, so rare in the past. A paper on Alzheimer’s disease from a century and a half ago said that people had less than a one percent chance of coming down with the disease, whereas today we’re now told that our chances of ending up with Alzheimer’s disease or senile dementia is fifteen percent. We also have seen the peak of a very large increase in cardiovascular disease, and thank goodness it’s gone down. I believe it was Paul Dudley White who was the first person to actually identify himself as a cardiologist and a specialist in heart matters in the early part of the twentieth century. Before him, we didn’t have cardiologists. We didn’t need them in the prior century, or the century before. And it’s not because people didn’t have heart disease back then, it’s because it was very unusual. Thank goodness–with no credit, I’m sorry to say, to American medicine, but a lot credit to just public awareness–that the large increase in cardiovascular disease seems to have reached its peak in the late 80s, maybe early 90s, and has subsided a bit again.
The other major thing for which people look to hormone replacement for turns out to be osteoporosis prevention, which again, was fairly uncommon until the last century–except for the inuit of northern Canada. Osteoporosis was fairly rare in this country until, again, the early Twentieth Century when the incidence started to rise, and went up and up and up.
So we have those three major problems–osteoporosis, cardiovascular disease, and senility and Alzheimer’s disease are (more or less) one problem. Cardiovascular disease has gone up enormously, and if one tracks it back, a lot of it has to do with the current mismatch between human biochemical systems and the enormously changed dietary and other environmental factors. What has been observed is that hormone replacement therapy is not only perhaps a longevity issue, but it can do a lot to reduce the probability of those three major problems. I think that is fairly definite and very defendable, but only if we use the same hormones that have been found in human biochemical systems for as long there have been human biochemical systems.
I suspect that I’m beating a dead horse, to make a deliberate pun, when I say that putting horse hormones into humans–when those horse hormones are roughly seventy percent different from human hormones, and have never been in human bodies before–was one of medicine’s many grievous errors in the last century. If we had been using bioidentical hormones we very likely would have never ever run into the disaster that the Women’s Health Initiative turned out to be. But we can significantly lower the risk of those three major risk problems that arose in the Twentieth Century, and continue into the Twenty-first Century, with bioidentical molecules.
We need to be extremely careful about not only the types of molecules, and duplicating exactly what goes on in the human body, but we also need to be concerned about quantities, the route of administration, and timing. It’s not very complicated. Actually, the whole thing can be summed up in two words–“copy nature.” If we’re going to replace the body’s hormones, let’s use the same molecules, the same quantities, the same timing, and the same route of administration that nature uses. That is the least likely to get use all into trouble.
David: What are some of the symptoms of low testosterone in men?
Dr. Wright: It’s debatable, but, for example, when testosterone starts to drop, ordinarily if an aging man is exercising regularly, and trying to keep up a certain muscle mass, he’ll notice that it’s more difficult to maintain that muscle mass. And we’ve all heard of ‘grumpy grampa.’ Well, for some men, particularly in their seventies and eighties, some of the just general grumpy mood can actually be attributed to testosterone being lower than it might be. I’ve talked with a number of families who say, oh yeah, Grampa’s a lot more cheerful, and he’s cracking more jokes, ever since he got his testosterone level back up. So that’s one of the mental symptoms, and there are physical ones, such as muscle mass problems. Certainly all men, or at least nearly all men, are concerned about their declining libido and sexual performance as they age, and they have problems that could have to do with low testosterone levels. That’s not always due to low testosterone, but if we combine several things–such as mental decline, a loss in muscle mass, and a loss in sexual desire and performance–and the more of those things we put together, the more
Shattering the Barriers of Maximum Life Span:
By David Jay Brown
Joseph Knoll, M.D., is a Hungarian nuerochemist and pharmacologist. He is probably best known for developing the drug deprenyl (also known as Selegiline), the first selective MAO-B inhibitor, and he has researched the properties of deprenyl for over half a century.
Dr. Knoll is also the author of the recently published book The Brain and Its Self: A Neurochemical Concept of Innate and Acquired Drives (Springer, 2005), which summarizes his life’s research and his fascinating speculations about the relationship between brain activity and culture. In this book Dr. Knoll describes how his experience as a Nazi concentration camp survivor helped to inspire and motivate much of his scientific research. Although his parents were sent to the gas chamber when he was a teenager, Dr. Knoll survived because he spoke fluent German and was chosen to serve as the personal servant to the Chief of the SS guards. After the war, in 1945 Dr. Knoll returned to his native city of Budapest. He earned his M.D. from the University of Budapest in 1951, and later became a professor and the head of the Department of Pharmacology at the Semmelweiss University of Medicine in Budapest.
In the early 1950s, Dr. Knoll helped to pioneer research into the physiological basis of innate and acquired drives in animals. Trying to make sense of his experience in the Nazi concentration camp, Dr. Knoll became interested in how animals acquire new drives. The research that resulted from Dr. Knoll’s interest in this subject centered around studying the brain changes in rats that had been trained to have an acquired drive for an unnatural object–a glass cylinder. This acquired drive–which urged the animals to search for, and jump to, the rim of a thirty centimeter-high glass-cylinder, and then crawl inside–would often override the animals’ instinctive drives for food and sex.
Dr. Knoll first synthesized deprenyl in his Budapest laboratory in 1961. He showed that deprenyl improves the availability of dopamine, and slows its age-related decline by acting as a selective MAO-B inhibitor. Even more importantly, according to Dr. Knoll, it has an enhancer effect, and it helps maintain healthy brain cells, particularly in the dopamine-producing area of the brain known as the substantia nigra–the area of the brain that degenerates with Parkinson’s Disease. For this reason deprenyl has been used as an effective treatment for Parkinson’s Disease. It has also been shown to be an effective treatment for Alzhiemer’s Disease and other brain disorders that result in cognitive decline.
Deprenyl has been shown to have many uses as a cognitive enhancer. It is a moderate-level stimulant and antidepressant that has been shown to improve memory, protect the brain against cell damage, alleviate depression, extend the life span of laboratory animals, and heighten sexual desire in both men and women. This impressive substance is available by prescription in the U.S., and although it is primarily prescribed to help people with Parkinson’s disease, memory disorder problems, and sometimes depression, a lot of healthy people also use deprenyl to improve their mental performance. In fact, Dr. Knoll himself takes deprenyl every day, and recommends that every sexually mature person should be doing the same.
I’ve personally been using deprenyl as antidepressant and cognitive enhancer for over ten years, and I can attest to its powerful brain-boosting effects. It improves my mental performance so dramtically that I’ve used it before every public talk that I’ve given since 1995. Along with other cognitive enhancers, such as hydergine and piracetam, I think that deprenyl has incredible potential for enhancing memory, accelerating intelligence, and improving concentration. There is a good deal of scientific evidence to support these claims. For an excellent summary of the scientific studies in this area see John Morgenthaler and Ward Dean’s book Smart Drugs and Nutrients II.
Many people report that deprenyl and other “smart drugs” have sexually-enhancing “side-effects”, although deprenyl appears to have the leading reputation in this area. According to Dr. Dean–the coauthor of Smart Drugs and Nutrients–“anything that improves brain function is probably going to improve sexual functioning.” This is probably because sexuality and health go hand-in-hand, and sexual vitality is a pretty good indicator of overall health.
Dr. Knoll and colleagues first reported indications for deprenyl’s potential as a sexuality enhancer in 1983, with reports that old male rats had increased their “”mounting frequency” and “intromission” when they were treated with deprenyl. This contrasted dramatically with the untreated control animals. Many anecdotal reports, from both men and women, have confirmed that these aphrodisiac-like effects apply to humans as well. Because Deprenyl inhibits MAO–the dopamine-destroying enzyme–levels of the excitatory neurotransmitter dopamine rise in the brain, which generally causes people to feel more pleasure and become more physiologically aroused.
Interestingly, unlike most other MAO inhibitor drugs (such as the antidepressant Nardil), there are usually no dietary restrictions necessary when one takes deprenyl. When taken at moderate levels (under 10 mg.), deprenyl only inhibits the action of a specific type of MAO–MAO B–which doesn’t interfere with the body’s ability to metabolize the amino acid tyrosine, like a broad-spectrum MAO inhibitor does. This is why most other MAO-inhibiting drugs carry the serious danger of triggering a hypertensive reaction if one eats tyrosine-rich foods, like cheese or wine. Deprenyl has been described by researchers as working with great precision in this regard, and the physicians that I spoke with agreed that it was unusually safe.
In fact, deprenyl is better than safe. This truly remarkable drug has also been shown to increase the maximum lifespan of laboratory animals by close to forty percent. This is the equivalent of a human being living to be around a hundred and fifty years of age. Giving deprenyl to animals is the only experimental treatment–besides caloric restriction–that has been shown to increase maximum life span. [Extending maximum life span–as opposed to extending average life span–means extending the maximum number of years that the longest-lived members of a particular species has been known to attain.]
To fully appreciate how significant deprenyl’s life extension potential is, one has to understand the difference between maximum life span and average life span. Many factors can affect the average lifespan (or the “normal life expectancy”) that an animal lives–genetics, diet, exercise, nutritional supplements, mental attitude, ect. However, even under the very best of conditions, there is an upper limit at which the longest-lived animals of a particular species can survive, and that is the animal’s maximum life span.
The average life span of a human being is approximately seventy to eighty years. However, the maximum life span of a human being is around a hundred and twenty years. The laboratory animals in the deprenyl studies showed a forty percent increase in maximum life span, the human equivalent of living a hundred and fifty years. Since deprenyl’s primary effects work the same in all mammalian brains, it stands to reason that deprenyl’s life extension effects are likely to carry over to humans, just as the mental benefits do. Many people have certainly verified that the increase in sex drive occurs in both humans and laboratory animals.
To follow are some excerpts from the interview that I conducted with Dr. Knoll in September of 2005. Born in 1925, Dr. Knoll was eighty at the time of this interview. We spoke about how his experience with the holocaust influenced his decision to become a research scientist, how people can utilize deprenyl for its cognitive enhancing and antiaging benefits, and what type of antiaging treatments might be available in the future.
David: How did your experience with the holocaust when you were young influence your decision to become a research scientist, and what inspired your interest in neurochemistry?
Dr. Knoll: It is a horrifying fact that in Germany millions of single-minded little-men, who had previously lived a honest simple life and never belonged to extremist groups, dramatically changed within a few years after 1933 and, imbued with the Nazi ideology, became unbelievably cool-headed murders of innocent civilians during the Second World War. This phenomenon has been documented from many angles in dozens of novels, films, and so on. However, we are still waiting for an adequate elucidation of the brain mechanism responsible for this dramatic and rapid change in the behavior of millions.
As a survivor of Auschwitz, and one of the 1300 survivors of the “Dachau death train,” I had the opportunity to directly experience a few typical representatives of this type of manipulated human beings, and had more than enough time and direct experience to reflect upon the essential changes in the physiological manipulability of the human brain. It was therefore not just by mere chance that, when in the early 1950s I finally had the opportunity to approach this problem experimentally, I decided to develop a rat model to follow the changes in the brain in the course of the
Unlocking the Secrets of Mind-Body Medicine:
By David Jay Brown
Bernie S. Siegel, M.D., helped to create a revolution in modern medicine. He is the author of Love, Medicine, and Miracles, the groundbreaking best-selling book that sold more than two million copies and went to number one on the New York Timesbestseller list.
In his practice as a general and pediatric surgeon, Dr. Siegel began recognizing common personality characteristics in those patients who did well and those who didn’t. Studying these personality patterns helped Dr. Siegel to understand the important role that thoughts and emotions play in our health, and he began incorporating what he learned into how he treated his patients. In so doing, he helped to create a paradigm shift in clinical medicine that paved the way for what is now commonly known as mind-body medicine.
Dr. Siegel earned a medical doctorate from Cornell Medical College, and he received his surgical training at Yale University. In 1978, Dr. Siegel and his wife Bobbie founded the Exceptional Cancer Patients (ECaP) program in New Haven, Connecticut. This highly regarded and successful program–which incorporates a combination of group and individual therapy–is based upon what Dr. Siegel calls “carefrontation” or “a loving, safe, therapeutic confrontation that facilitates personal change, enpowerment, and healing.”
Dr. Siegel’s book Love, Medicine, and Miracles was published in 1986. As a result of this book’s enormous popularity, Dr. Siegel appeared on numerous television shows, including Oprah, Donahue, and 20/20. Some of Dr. Siegel’s other books include Peace, Love and Healing, How to Live Between Office Visits, Prescriptions for Living, Help Me To Heal, and 365 Prescriptions for the Soul. Dr. Siegel also produced a series of popular audio cassettes, including Meditations for Enhancing Your Immune System, and Humor and Healing.
Since retiring from clinical practice in 1989, Dr. Siegel has focused his energies on humanizing medical care and medical education. He is especially interested in teaching other health care professionals about how the mind-body connection affects health. Dr. Siegel travels extensively to speak and lead workshops. He recently completed a new children’s book, and is working on a book about how dreams and drawings can be used to reveal the somatic aspects of disease and healing. To find out more about Dr. Siegel’s work visit his Web site: www.ecap-online.org
I interviewed Dr. Siegel on November 12, 2004. I found Bernie to be extremely warm and charismatic. He’s very funny and playful, curious and open-minded, and I immediately felt comfortable with him. We spoke about how beliefs and emotions affect our health, how dreams might offer insights and clues as to how to treat a particular illness, what he thinks needs to be done to help improve the Western medical profession, and he offered a few prescriptions for how to slow down or reverse the aging process.
David: What inspired your interest in medicine, and why did you choose to become a surgeon?
Bernie: When I look back at my life, the number one reason that I come up with has to do with being artistic as a child, and having talented hands, but not realizing you could earn a living as an artist. I know that may sound silly, but as a kid I just didn’t know that. So I thought it would be good to use my hands because they’re skillful. I liked people, science fascinated me, and I liked fixing things. When I looked at what could accomplish all of those things, I realized, hey, you could be a surgeon and do them all.
I can remember taking care of a lot of children with various deformities back in medical school at what’s called the Hospital for Special Surgery. I was intially doing orthopedic work, and the funny thing was I realized that my personality was not to be an orthopedic surgeon–because it took too long for a bone to heal. I couldn’t wait. (laughter) So I became a general and a pediatric surgeon. In other words, I began taking care of children, but with congenital anomalies and other different things, as well as adults, because we had a practice partnership. So I took care of all ages, but I cared for all the children, and I really let the children teach me how to take care of adults.
But I always say that the reasons I became a physician were healthy. They’re not normal for a surgeon, because a lot of psychologists contacted me years ago saying, you’re not a normal surgeon, and please fill out these personality profiles. Then they’d call back and say, we were right–you’re not normal. And yes, I understand that, but I think that’s also what got me into people’s pain. Many students today don’t have anything to do with people in their reasons for wanting to go to medical school. When they’re filling out the form, it says, why do you want to be a doctor? They’ll say the human body fascinates me. When I say to them, draw yourself working as a doctor, they’ll draw pictures with no human beings in them.
It’s just unbelievable to think that you can say to a student, draw yourself working as a doctor, and they hand you a picture with diplomas, computers, instruments, prescriptions, bottles of drugs, and things of that sort. There are no people in the picture. So it’s because I cared about people, as I say, that I got into pain–because you ultimately realize that you can’t fix everything, and you can’t save everybody. It got to be very painful, and none of that is dealt with in your training. They don’t prepare you for loss, and that’s a part of the problem. There’s nowhere to discuss the pain, or share your feelings and help heal.
David: Can you talk a little about how you think our thoughts and beliefs effect the health of our bodies?
Bernie: You can’t separate thoughts and beliefs from your body. In other words, what you think, and what you believe, literally change your body chemistry. So if you have a pessimistic, hopeless outlook you’ll change your body, your immune function, and you can die a lot faster. I have literally seen this. I hear these stories from people, when someone’s hope is taken away. Let’s say they’re told they have a few months to live, but they can go home, climb into bed, and be dead in a week. So it’s really like turning off the “live switches”. When you study survivors you find that relationships, connections, hope and meaning all relate to people staying alive. For instance, just on simple terms, women live longer than men with the same cancers, and this has more to do with the men saying, I can’t work, so what’s the point of living? And the women seeing all the connections in their family, and reasons for being here.
So, as I say, your thoughts, beliefs, all relate to the health of your body, and many doctors literally can kill people with their words, or in a sense, heal them and cure them with words, and give them hope. This was something that I got into years ago, and everybody would yell at me, oh you’re giving false hope. But hope can’t be false. (laughter) If you have hope, it’s real. So there’s no such thing as false hope. Hope is a memory of the future. What they’re talking about is, you’re supposed to tell people what day they’re going to die. But who knows that? If the statistics say there’s six months average survival that doesn’t mean there aren’t people walking around ten years later, you see, who had that disease, and some who died in a week. So you’re coming up with an average. But individuals are not effected by an average. Yes, I might use it to make therapeutic choices. If something can improve your chances of surviving, you’d say, okay, let’s have an operation, let me have chemotherapy, whatever–but it doesn’t say where you’ll be next year or five years from now.
David: How do you think multiple personality disorder sheds light on the process by which the mind effects the body?
Bernie: If you look at the case histories of people with multiple personality disorder one of the things that you see is that there are people who are allergic to something in one personality but not in another. There was one case where somebody was diabetic in one personality and not in another. So, you see, when you change personalities your physiology can change with it. Now, a study was done that shows this operating on a simpler basis. If I give you a role or a script to play, and if it’s a depressing one, it will adversely effect immune function and stress hormone levels. However, if I give you a comedy it will enhance them. You see, it’s like the multiple personality–you’re changing your character. But what impresses me is that in a play it’s not even you or your life. You’re just acting. But still, when you act that part, your body responds to it, and that’s what people have to remember. So this is what I’m always saying to them–rehearse and practice who you want to be. As a physician I see myself as a coach. I try to help people be survivors. I point out to them what the qualities are of those who do better than I expect, so that they can imitate them, and rehearse and practice being a survivor. One doctor wrote of how his patients survived in a concentration
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