"The brain has a backup system": Why people missing much of their brain can miraculously recover

"Embodied Mind" author Thomas Verny on consciousness and the brain's amazing "backup system"

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published October 24, 2021 7:30PM (EDT)

Brain with eyeglasses (Getty Images/Jolygon)
Brain with eyeglasses (Getty Images/Jolygon)

Your brain has a place of residence — your mind does not. More and more, science is showing us the ways in which our intelligence and consciousness inhabit our entire being. A heart transplant patient can experience a change in personality. The traumas of our grandparents may be passed on to affect our own development. And a patient with a "virtually absent" brain can lead a seeming normal life.

Author and physician Thomas R. Verny delves into these puzzling cases and more in his fascinating new book, "The Embodied Mind: Understanding the Mysteries of Cellular Memory, Consciousness, and Our Bodies." In it, he offers a more expansive view of what goes in to our experience of the world — and unpacks how we really are led not just by our heads but our hearts and guts. Salon spoke to him recently about his new book, and the power of reframing our "hierarchical system" of body science.

A lot of us conflate the brain with the mind. What's the difference? What do we mean when we say "the brain?" What do we mean when we say "the mind"?

That is a huge question. There are hundreds of books on consciousness, and everybody tries to define it in a different way. Defining the mind is even more difficult, and so there are many different ways of approaching this. It's very difficult to say whether, for example, animals have consciousness. At which point does consciousness enter the evolutionary tree? Do monkeys have consciousness? Do cats have consciousness? The way some people behave certainly would indicate that they have no consciousness at all.

So I try to avoid the subject of consciousness. The mind interests me more, a lot more. There are many different ways of approaching it. One of them, for example, is the way that I got into this whole area, seven years ago. I read this piece in Reuters Science about a French civil servant who was 44 years old. He went to the hospital complaining of a mild weakness in his left leg. The doctors performed a lot of scans, and what they found was that he had hardly any brain tissue.

His head was full of cerebral spinal fluid. [The doctor] in Marseilles was quoted as saying the images were most unusual. The brain was virtually absent. The patient was a married father of two children. This is what really got me going. The patient was apparently leading a normal life, despite having cranium filled with spinal fluid and very little brain tissue. When I read that, I started looking into the literature and I soon found that there were a lot of reports and children, for example, who have had hemispherectomies, meaning that one half of their brain was removed because of epilepsy.

I looked also at adults who have had large parts of their brain removed. In most cases, not all of them, but a large majority of cases, it did not seem to affect their intelligence or their cognition, their thought processes or behavior. When I thought about that, it occurred to me that if people who lack a large of the brain can function normally, or even relatively normally, there must exist some kind of a backup system like we have in our computers that somehow makes up for what's lacking and will send messages to the brain — whatever is left of it — so that the person can function normally.

That was one way in which I got in interested in this whole idea of really our mind being more than just a function of the brain. This is what most neuropsychologists and neurologists believe, that the mind is a function of the brain, just like urine is a function of the kidneys or bile is a function of the bile ducts, et cetera. But that's not how the mind works. It cannot possibly work that way. Another thing that has occurred to me that we live in a Western culture that for centuries has been patriarchal, which means that we have a hierarchical system. In the middle ages and before the king was representative of God, and then the king and his noblemen were just underneath him, and underneath that were other people and other people and other people. In the United States, you have a president, you have a cabinet, you have Congress and then less and less power is given out.

It's all vertical from up, down. That's how we have looked also at science. The brain is at the top and everything else is below, and that is wrong. In preparation for this book, frankly, I spent many years doing research. I read about 5,000 books and articles and papers and journals in preparation for this. And then out of that, I called about 500 studies that I'm actually using in the book. A great deal of work has gone into this and I show over and over again, for example, in the immune system, or when you go into regeneration and hibernation, there are many instances that show that cells are much more intelligent than we have given them credit for. It is not this vertical system of brain down, but it's a horizontal system of networking that really makes up our minds. You could say our brains, but it's really the embodied brain that I'm talking about, not the old and skulled brain.

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Talk to me about the science of epigenetics, and why we are at this crucial crossroads right now in our understanding of the impact of trauma and experience, not just on ourselves, but on our children and our grandchildren.

For a long time geneticists held that genes are your destiny, and from the time that you are conceived, you have your genes and that's it. Over the last thirty years, we have found out that's not it at all. What have found out was that as Robert Sapolsky of Stanford University once said, it's the genome. It's like, you have a 100 page book and 95 pages are instructions and advice on how to read the other five pages. And so it is these non-coding areas in the genome which are essentially to be scientific methods and asset build groups.

They are the switches, which switch genes on or off. Epigenetics is all about how which genes are active and which are, you might say, asleep or resting or non-active. Everything that happens to us from moment to moment switches some genes on and some genes off. It doesn't change the genes. The genes are immutable. But what it does change is what the geneticists call expression, activation. What we are finding out is that, let's say if a father is stressed before he conceives a child, that stress is going to be passed on through micro RNA for example, in his sperm.

So stressed fathers will have stressed children because of epigenetics, because the stress changed some of the expression of some of the genes, which then changed some other substances in his sperm. So everything is passed down to the next generation. We have a lot of research where we can show that certain things have been passed down three and four generations, not just one generation. One of the really important things would be parents to realize that how they live is going to affect their still unborn children.

You talk about what that means in terms of expression and how very quickly that can change also within a person's own lifetime. Talk to me about how circumstantially, you can change that expression.

One of the really interesting studies that I mentioned in my book is a study of 94 hotel maids in New York. Half of them were told that the cleaning up that they do every day represents exercise. The other group was not told that at all. They would just continue to work as before. After one month, the scientists found that the group of maids who believed that they were exercising every day had a drop in blood pressure. They had a drop in weight. There were all kinds of areas where they improved, although they did not change their work habits or anything. It was only their belief system that changed. And they witnessed them change their genes.

I want to ask you about the limits of that, because we have a very bootstraps mentality, and there are limitations to that. You can't not die of COVID because you're thinking good thoughts. How do we understand this in a way that is rational and understands the corporal real limitations of walking around in a body?

People who say, "If you just think the right thoughts, everything is going to turn out all right," not so. Absolutely not. I think it's helpful, just like a good diet is helpful. Exercise is helpful. Having the right thoughts is helpful. They all contribute. Once again, it's a multifactorial system we live in. There is no one answer to any one complicated question. We have to start accepting the fact that we live in a very complex world. We humans are incredibly complex beings and yes, your thoughts will definitely make a difference.

We know that placebos have a very strong effect. Hypnosis for example, has a very strong effect. Yes, the mind can affect the body. No doubt about it. The way psychosomatic is confusing is because we are using the wrong terminology. There should be no difference between psyche and somatic. There should be one word, which we don't have at the moment. As I'm speaking to you, my body is changing. It's not one or the other, it's all happening at the same time. That's also what I'm saying about the embodied mind. That it is all. It's really a network that is constantly vibrating and changing. You can't say it's the brain, or you can't say it's the heart. It's the whole body.

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Toward the end of the book you start talking about free will and our understanding of consciousness and free will. When we're talking about something like free will, it feels spiritual. But there is really an aspect of that that is deeply scientific, that is deeply, as you say, embodied.

Consciousness, the mind, free will, these are the hard questions. I spent probably a good six months thinking about this and trying to study it and the best sort of answer that I could come up with. I will not claim the best answer or the final answer is that we have to look at quantum mechanics to really understand the mind. After doing all the studies that I did and putting it down on paper and looking at it, the mind cannot just be a function of the brain. There are too many opposing factors and reasons for that — even such things as when people are of "two minds," for example. How could one brain produce "two minds"? When you have multiple personalities, which have been documented. They are less frequent now than they used to be but biologically, you cannot explain it. There is no biological explanation for multiple personalities. It seems to me that the best thing we can come up with in terms of free will is the fact that we are not living in a totally irrational universe, that there are things that can happen to us, which we don't always understand. Some of it may be from our unconscious. Some of it may be from way back, the collective unconscious. I think that whichever way you look at it, you have to arrive at the conclusion that we do have free will up to a point.

I'm always amazed at how some people, without any sort of previous input become, for example, liberal. Just humanistic liberal. From the same family, you might even have two children, one is five, the other four. They grow up. One of them becomes a raving lunatic right-winger and the other one is left of center and humanistic and liberal. How does that happen? It's more than genetics. It's more than upbringing. In that particular brain and body, it has been influenced in such a way that he or she is able to make decisions, which are different from the ones that they have been educated or trained or brought up in. So where does that come from? It has to come from their minds. So that must give them free will to make choices.

You write in the book how it is known that after you have something happen inside your heart, that it can change you. What can that tell us about our consciousness, about our personality, about our identity?

We have to realize that the heart is more than just a pump. The heart contains an incredible number of a variety of cells, including cells which are very similar to neurons in terms of being able to contain memories. Other cells, other than neurons, can contain memories too. I'm just pointing it out that actually there are some cells in the heart, which is often referred to as the cardiac heart, that act like neurons. The important thing about the heart to realize is that it acts as a synchronizing force on a lot of the things that happen in the body.

It is a carrier of information related to personal identity. So when you have a heart transplant and you put it into another person's body, for quite a while, there will be no neuro connections to the rest of the body, because the vagus nerve, which is the main nerve that supplies the heart, also supplies the gastrointestinal tract.

It will take several months before all the nerves from the recipient's body actually enter the heart. In the meantime, the heart is on its own. The heart could not be on its own, working and pumping and doing all the work that hearts are supposed to do, if it did not have all that nervous tissue in it that would make it work without outside support. The heart is a pretty self-contained universe. For centuries, people have talked about, my heart is not in it. Or, when I fall in love, it's two hearts doing the tango or whatever. People have given the heart a lot of personality, so to speak.

I think that there is a reason for that. People over the centuries, without being scientific, have noticed that the heart is sort of the emotional center of our bodies. I don't think it's surprising, but it certainly proves my point that cells can contain information other than just about the cellular dynamics. They can contain memories and personality bits that then when transferred to the recipient are sometimes recognized and sometimes not. Some scientists really go haywire when I mention to them, the fact that there is personality transfer when there is heart transfer. They just go nuts. I don't know why it upsets them so much.

The same thing, of course also applies to obstetricians and to a lot of doctors. A lot of obstetricians are only interested in making sure that the baby and the mother are healthy. That does not involve psychological health.

Epigenetically, biologically, psychologically, it's all part of the whole. When medicine looks at us as auto parts that are distinct from each other, and aren't working in a systemic way, we create suffering. There's a lot in this book that feels really kind of heavy and overwhelming and a little scary. We can't change history. What is exciting about what you've discovered?

Well, quite a number of things. One of them, since the lives of parents and grandparents, several generations back can affect their children even before conception, means parents would take this information, and stop drinking and smoking and doing all kinds of things which are unhealthy. That's one thing. The other thing is that when the scientific community, and especially the medical fraternity and pharmaceutical industry, begin to integrate these ideas into practice, hopefully they will discover new and better treatments of many physical and mental diseases.

For example, one of the things that I mentioned at the end of the book is the fact that it has been known for quite some time that people with heart disease have a much higher rate of Alzheimer's disease. When we look at that, instead of only looking at the brain as the seat of all the problems, look at the heart. What is it in the heart that's producing a higher rate of Alzheimer's cases than otherwise?

This hierarchical system really is working against new discoveries in terms of treatments. We have to look at the whole body. When we look at cancer of the, I don't know, cancer of the blood, we also have to look at the rest of the body. What's happening in the gastrointestinal tract? People don't realize we carry five pounds of bacteria and viruses in our gut. Billions and billions of these bacteria every day influence how we think and how we feel. One of the things, for example, that really people should start paying attention to is their gut health and also the bacterial health in your mouth. Very important dental hygiene, incredibly important. So these are all things that we have to become aware of.

On the spiritual paths, I think it gives people pause to think about consciousness and free will and the mind. Those are important things to think about. I don't know whether we can really come to any final conclusions on the subject. I think that will always be a work in progress. And I don't think that's bad. I think it's good to keep it alive and to think about it and to have discussions like you and I have had. All of that is good and healthy. So those are the things that come to my mind.

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By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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