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November 7, 2015

Make up your mind, the time is now

Dr. Mohamed Elmasry

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Human beings consist of material elements, comprising body and brain, and the non-material components of mind and spirit.

Borrowing from computer language, we can call the brain our “hardware” and the mind its “firmware.” You could also use the more familiar term of “software,” but while software can run on a variety of devices, firmware is designed to run on a very specific piece of hardware – in this case, the person’s brain.

Among its numerous tasks, the body supports the brain by providing energy and input stimuli through sensors such as sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell.

For its part, the mind encompasses each human being’s unique self-awareness, perception, beliefs, thoughts, memories, understanding, learning, reasoning and personality. It also responds to stimuli such as behaviour, mental functioning, feelings and emotions.

We can also define the human spirit as being driven by a high level of mental activity, helping to shape how we see the world and respond to different situations beyond those of quantitative cause-and-effect.

These could include giving charity to the needy, even when you yourself are in need; calling on the unseen Divine for help; or believing in life after death, even with no eyewitness accounts of its existence. Indeed, many religions associate not only rational, but also spiritual qualities with the human mind.

The four elements of body, brain, mind and spirit are interdependent and continuously affect one another in complex and often mysterious ways. It is essential to persevere in understanding as much as we can about their interaction at both the micro and the macro levels. In doing so, we enhance the quality of our lives, especially our ability to heal one or more of our components when they are injured or malfunction. 

The ancients used to say that a healthy body needs a healthy brain and a healthy mind needs a healthy spirit and vice versa. They also believed in the disciplines of “mind over body” and “spirit over mind.”

For example, the way in which our mind memorizes information is not simply a matter of storing it in the brain the way we load data into computers.

Instead, we humans personalize our learning with complex filters that generate our perceptions of concepts such as beauty, love, and fear.

Similarly, the manner in which we retrieve some types of information and delete others, or how we engage memory as a stimulus to activities such as creativity and dreaming, is also very complex and subjective.

Our entire human “package” of body, brain, mind and spirit is profoundly influenced by two key factors – our individual genetic makeup, which is determined at conception (nature) and the environment into which we are born and live (nurture).

Environmental factors include our upbringing, learning, social and cultural influences, geographical context, cumulative experiences, maturity, interpersonal relationships, and the full range of intangible and physical-material influences to which we are all exposed.

Genetic factors include the cumulative adaptations of all humans over eons of time as well as uniquely specific traits and characteristics, both external and internal, determined within the matrix of our DNA.

While some (I am among them) attribute all of this to a supreme Designer, others believe that the complex system of the human organism, amazing as it is, has no original designer, divine or otherwise.

Nevertheless, our understanding of these four elements – how they affect one another and have been affected by numerous variables of genetics and environment – has always been the subject of intense study by the physical and medical sciences, philosophy, religion, psychology, cognitive science and even computer sciences, in the development of artificial neural networks, artificial intelligence, and information theory.

Historically, this unrelenting quest for understanding is often framed as the “mind-body problem” and all too rarely as the “mind-body-brain-spirit problem.” Yet balanced health care should include the entire human entity – including the often-neglected aspect of spiritual health.

Researchers are now realizing, for example, that the absence of a recognized mental disorder is not necessarily an indicator of mental health, any more than the absence of war is a state of peace.

They believe that a better way to understand and assess mental health is to consider how effectively and successfully an individual functions holistically: that is, whether they feel capable and competent; their handling of normal stress levels; their capacity for maintaining satisfying relationships; their success in living independently; and their ability to recover successfully from difficult situations. These are all indicators of good mental health.

Our current research methods in the field of body-brain-mind- spirit are far from holistic and the results of this deficiency are sometimes disastrous, especially when it comes to developing preventive medicines and finding cures for specific ailments or conditions.

In his bestselling book The Biology of Belief: Unleashing the Power of Consciousness, Matter & Miracles Bruce H. Lipton, Ph.D. promotes the interesting concept that even genes and DNA can be manipulated by a person’s beliefs.

Lipton, a pioneering American developmental biologist and proponent of the “new biology,” is an internationally recognized leader in bridging science and spirit.

Originally trained as a cell biologist, he was on the faculty of the University of Wisconsin’s School of Medicine and later performed ground-breaking stem-cell research at Stanford University. His research on muscular dystrophy and studies employing cloned human stem cells focused on the molecular mechanisms controlling cell behavior.

In 2009, he received Japan’s prestigious Goi Peace Award, recognizing his scientific contributions to world harmony.

Lipton writes: “Stunning new scientific discoveries about the biochemical effects of the brain’s functioning show that all the cells of your body are affected by your thoughts. What would your life be like if you learned that you are more powerful than you have ever been taught?”

Consider two of the most common and devastating human afflictions – cancer and depression. Both are treated at the lowest level of our being, the biological level. In both cases patients are typically given drugs designed to activate chemical reactions within the body or brain in hopes of curing these diseases. Much more is known about how they work, but too little about why they often don’t work.   

Today billions of dollars in medical research funds directly benefit the profit margins of giant multinational drug companies. To make matters worse, these companies often monopolize the total production of important drugs and charge as much for them as the market can bear. Many would argue that they go beyond what the market can bear, making access to life-changing and life-saving medicines impossible for the world’s poor. 

In ancient times a medical researcher called Hakim (an Arabic name meaning a “noble wise person”) took a holistic approach to understanding human beings. A Hakim’s own life and career embodied that same character; he was also a philosopher, musician, poet-writer, mathematician, and theologian. Above all, he was not part of a for-profit industry!

Great early Muslim medical researchers, including Al-Farabi, Ibn-Sina (Avicenna), Ibn-Rashid (Averroes), and Ibn-Alhaytham (Alhazen) were also holistic practitioners like a Hakim.

They were all brought up in the teachings of the Qur’an, which places equal emphasis on physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health. Blind faith is not enough. Every individual is expected to reflect on the Word of God (Qur’an 4:82, 47:24, 23:68, 38:29) and on God’s creation (Qur’an 45:5) and never take them for granted.

From a Qur’anic viewpoint, those whose powers of judgment and self-awareness are impaired by mental illness are not held responsible for decisions or acts over which they have no conscious control.

In the Muslim tradition, daily life is approached holistically.

Maintaining a healthy body and brain by eating moderately, avoiding smoking and alcohol and other mood-altering intoxicants, engaging in exercise and sports, observing personal hygiene, and having healthy sexual relations are all valued like acts of worship, designed to enhance the quality of life.

Similarly, maintaining a healthy mind and spirit is equally important in Islam.

Muslims achieve this internal balance through prayer, fasting, contemplation, seeking knowledge and memorizing and chanting the Qur’an.

The outward expression of spiritual health is expressed through caring for the sick and elderly; nurturing and protecting the young; supporting parents and relatives; and doing other charitable acts, whether financial or in-kind.

Looking back at all Hakim, Muslims or others, one could argue today that these broadly educated and open-minded “ancients” were in fact far ahead of their own time, and clearly ahead of ours. Their examples tell us that we need to adopt a major paradigm shift in how we live on planet Earth.

But we cannot make such a monumental change by acting only as separate, unconnected individuals. This is a challenge to be met both personally and collectively. And the time to embrace it is now.

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