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FROM BREAKDOWN TO BREAKTHROUGH
For you and me, the body poses problems that will only grow worse. As children we loved our bodies and rarely thought about them. As we grew older, though, we soon fell out of love, and with good reason. Billions of dollars are spent to cure the body of its many ills and miseries. Billions more are thrown down the drain for cosmetics, whose purpose is to fool us into thinking we look better than we do. To be blunt, the human body is unsatisfactory and has been for a long time. It can't be trusted, since sickness often strikes without warning. It deteriorates over time and eventually dies. Let's attack this problem seriously. Instead of making do with the physical form you were given at birth, why not look for a breakthrough, a completely new way of approaching the body?
Breakthroughs occur when you start thinking about a problem in a fresh new way. The biggest breakthroughs occur when you start thinking in an unbounded way. Take your eyes away from what you see in the mirror. If you came from Mars and have never seen how the body ages and declines over time, you might believe it would work in just the opposite way. From a biological point of view, there's no reason why the body should be flawed. So start there. Having erased every outworn assumption from your mind, you are now free to entertain some breakthrough ideas that totally change the situation:
Your body is boundless. It is channeling the energy, creativity, and intelligence of the entire universe.
At this moment, the universe is listening through your ears, seeing through your eyes, experiencing through your brain.
Your purpose for being here is to allow the universe to evolve.
None of this is outlandish. The human body is already the universe's most advanced laboratory experiment. You and I are at the cutting edge of life. Our best chance for survival is to embrace that fact. Rapid evolution, faster than that for any other life-form on the planet, gave us our present state of ever-increasing health, longer lifespan, exploding creativity, and a vision of possibilities that science advances faster and faster. Our physical evolution ceased around 200,000 years ago. You don't possess liver, lungs, heart, or kidneys different from those of a cave dweller. Indeed, you share 60 percent of your genes with a banana, 90 percent with a mouse, and more than 99 percent with a chimpanzee. In other words, everything else that makes us human has depended on an evolution that is far more nonphysical than physical. We invented ourselves, and as we did so, we brought our bodies along for the ride.
How you invented yourself
You have been inventing your body from the day you were born, and the reason you don't see it that way is that the process comes so naturally. It's easy to take for granted, and that's the problem. The flaws you see in your body today aren't inherent. They aren't bad news delivered by your genes or mistakes made by Nature. Your choices each played a part in the body you created, either consciously or unconsciously.
Here's a list of physical changes that you have made and continue to make. It's a very basic list, all medically valid, and yet hardly any part of your body is excluded.
Every skill you learn creates a new neural network in your brain.
Every new thought creates a unique pattern of brain activity.
Any change in mood is conveyed via "messenger molecules" to every part of the body, altering the basic chemical activity of each cell.
Every time you exercise, you alter your skeleton and muscles.
Every bite of food you eat alters your daily metabolism, electrolyte balance, and proportion of fat to muscle.
Your sexual activity and the decision to reproduce affects your hormonal balance.
The stress level to which you subject yourself raises and lowers your immune system.
Every hour of total inactivity creates muscle atrophy.
Your genes tune in to your thoughts and emotions, and in mysterious ways they switch on and off according to your desires.
Your immune system gets stronger or weaker in response to being in a loving or unloving relationship.
Crises of grief, loss, and loneliness increase the risk of disease and shortened lifespan.
Using your mind keeps your brain young; not using your brain leads to its decline.
Using these tools, you invented your body and can reinvent it anytime you want. The obvious question is, Why haven't we reinvented our bodies already? Certainly the problems have been staring us in the face long enough. The answer is that solving small pieces of the puzzle has been much easier than seeing the whole. Medicine is practiced in specialties. If you fall in love, an endocrinologist can report on the decline of stress hormones in your endocrine system. A psychiatrist can report on your improved mood, which a neurologist can confirm through a brain scan. A dietician may be worried that you're losing your appetite; on the other hand, what you do eat is digested better. And so it goes. No one can provide you with a complete picture.
To make matters more complex, because the body is so fluid and so superbly multitasking, it's difficult to imagine there's any one step to take that could lead to transformation. Right now you may be in love, pregnant, running down a country lane, eating a new diet, losing sleep or gaining it, doing better at your job or worse. Your body is nothing less than a universe in motion.
Reinventing the body means changing the whole universe.
Trying to tinker with your body misses the forest for the trees. One person fixates on her weight, another trains for a marathon, and yet another is adopting a vegan diet while her friend is dealing with menopause. Thomas Edison didn't tinker with building a better kerosene lamp; he abandoned the use of fire--the only human-generated source of light since prehistoric times--and broke through to a new source. That was a quantum leap in creativity. If you are the creator of your body, what is the quantum leap awaiting you?
Going back to the source
If we use Edison as our model, the last great reinvention of the body followed certain principles:
The body is an object.
It fits together like a complicated machine.
The machine breaks down over time.
The body's machinery is constantly attacked by germs and other microbes, which are also tiny machines on a molecular scale.
But these are all outmoded ideas. If any of these assumptions were true, then the following couldn't happen: a new syndrome recently appeared called electro-sensitivity, in which people complain that simply being near electricity causes discomfort and pain. Electro-sensitivity is taken seriously enough that at least one country, Sweden, will pay to have a person's house shielded from the electromagnetic field if they are diagnosed as electro-sensitive.
The widespread fear that cell phones harm the body has reached no definitive conclusion, but it seemed far easier to test whether there is such a thing as electro-sensitivity. In one experiment, subjects were put inside an electromagnetic field (we are surrounded by these every day in the form of microwaves, radio and television signals, cell-phone transmissions, and power lines), and as the field was turned on or off, they were asked to say what they felt. It turned out that nobody did better than random. People who described themselves as electro-sensitive did no better than anyone else, which means no better than random guessing.
However, this didn't settle the matter. In a follow-up experiment, people were given cell phones and asked if they could feel pain or discomfort when they placed the phones against their heads. The electro-sensitive people described a range of discomfort, including sharp pain and headache, and by looking at their brains with MRIs, it could be seen that they were telling the truth. The pain centers in their brains were activated. The catch is that the cell phones were dummies and were emitting no electrical signals of any kind. Therefore, the mere expectation that they would be in pain was enough to create pain in certain people, and the next time they used a real cell phone, they would suffer from the syndrome.
Before you dismiss this as a psychosomatic effect, pause and consider. If someone says he is electro-sensitive, and his brain acts as if he is electro-sensitive, the condition is real--at least for him. Psychosomatic conditions are real for those who experience them. But it's just as true to say that they created the conditions. In fact, there is a much larger phenomenon at work here--the ebb and flow of new diseases that may be new creations. Another example is anorexia and related eating disorders like bulimia. A generation ago, such disorders were rare, and now they appear to be endemic, especially among teenage girls. Premenstrual syndrome, or PMS, had its heyday but now seems to be fading. Cutting, a form of self-mutilation in which the patient, usually a young woman, secretly slices superficial wounds into her skin with a razor or knife, appears to be on the rise after a period of almost total obscurity.
When such new disorders appear, the first reaction is always that the victims created a sickness that is essentially imaginary or psychotic. Yet when the disorder spreads, and doctors find that patients cannot turn off the switch that turned the illness on, there can be only one conclusion. Self-created symptoms are real.
Machines can't create new disorders. But then the whole machine model was imperfect from the start. If you drive a car long enough, its moving parts are ground down by friction. But if you use a muscle, it gets stronger. Non-use, which helps keeps a machine in pristine condition, leads to atrophy with our bodies. Creaky, arthritic joints seem like a perfect example of moving parts that have worn out, but arthritis is actually caused by a host of complex disorders, not just simple friction.
During your lifetime this outworn model of the body hasn't changed but has only been tinkered with. So what is your body, then, if it's not a machine? Your whole body is a holistic, dynamic process in support of being alive. You are in charge of that process, and yet no one has given you the knowledge of how you should approach your job. Perhaps that is because the enterprise is immense: it covers everything, and it never stops.
The process of life
At this moment your body is a river that never stays the same, a continuous stream merging hundreds of thousands of chemical changes at the cellular level. Those changes aren't random; they constantly serve the purpose of moving life forward and preserving what's best from the past. Your DNA is like an encyclopedia that stores the entire history of evolution. Before you were born, your DNA thumbed through the pages to make sure every piece of knowledge was in place. In the womb, an embryo starts out as a single cell, the simplest form of life. It progresses to a loosely assembled blob of cells. Then, step by step, the embryo goes through the evolutionary stages of fish, amphibian, and lower mammal. Primitive gills appear and then disappear to make way for lungs.
By the time a baby emerges into the world, evolution has overshot the mark. Your brain was too complex as a newborn, with millions of unnecessary neuronal connections built into it, like a telephone system with too many wires. You spent your first few years paring down those millions of surplus connections, discarding the ones you didn't need, keeping those that functioned to make you exactly who you were. But at that point physical evolution reached unknown territory. Choices had to be made that were not automatically built into your genes.
A baby stands at the frontier of the unknown, and its genes have no more old pages left in the encyclopedia. You had to write the next page yourself. As you did so, starting the process of forming a totally unique life, your body kept pace: your genes adapted to how you think, feel, and act. You probably don't know that identical twins, born with exactly the same DNA, look very different genetically when they grow up: certain genes have been switched on, others switched off. By age seventy, images taken of the chromosomes of two twins don't look remotely the same. As life diverges, genes adapt.
Take a simple skill like walking. With each clumsy step, a toddler begins to change its brain. The nerve centers responsible for balance, known as the vestibular system, start to wake up and show activity; this is one area of the brain that can't develop in the uterus. Once a toddler has mastered walking, the vestibular system has completed this phase of its function.
But later, after you grow up, you might want to learn to drive a car, ride a motorcycle, or walk a balance beam. The brain, even though it may be mature, doesn't stop there. Quite the opposite: when you want to learn a new skill, your brain adapts according to your desire. A basic function like balance can be fine-tuned and trained far beyond the base level. This is the miracle of the mind-body connection. You are not hard-wired. Your brain is fluid and flexible, able to create new connections up into very old age. Far from decaying, the brain is an engine of evolution. Where physical evolution appeared to stop, it actually left an open door.
I want to take you through that door, because much more lies beyond it than you ever imagined. You were designed to unlock hidden possibilities that will remain hidden without you. An image comes to mind of probably the greatest feat of balance ever exhibited by a human being. You may have seen photos of it. On August 7, 1974, a French acrobat named Philippe Petit breached security at the World Trade Center. He climbed onto the roof and, with the help of confederates, strung a 450-pound cable between the two towers. Petit balanced himself with a twenty-six-foot pole as he walked out onto the cable, which stretched 140 feet. Both towers were swaying; the wind was high, the drop below his feet was 104 stories, or a quarter of a mile. Petit was a professional high-wire artist (as he called himself), and he had taken a basic ability of the body, balance, to a new stage.
What would terrify a normal person became normal for one person. In essence, Petit was at the cutting edge of evolution. He made eight crossings on the wire, which was only three-quarters of an inch in diameter. At one point Petit sat on the wire and even lay down on it. He realized that this was more than a physical feat. Because of the unwavering concentration that was required, Petit developed a mystical regard for what he was doing. His attention had to focus without allowing fear or distraction to enter for even a second.
From the Hardcover edition.