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Molecules of Emotion

by Caren Goldman
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Molecules of Emotion

Molecules of Emotion:
An Interview with Candace Pert

Essay Excerpt:
There's a saying that goes, "If you're not on the edge, you're taking up too much room." By that standard, neuroscientist Candace Pert has occupied minimal space during her 26-year career. But in reality, Pert's presence has loomed large in the scientific community. The iconoclastic researcher has a knack for stirring up controversy. One minute she's making jaw-dropping pronouncements such as "Science, at its core, is a spiritual endeavor." The next, she's declaring that the body and the mind are actually part of a linked system she calls the bodymind. Pert is best known for her pivotal role in the discovery of opiate receptors-molecules that unlock cells in the brain so that morphine and other opiates, including the body's natural opiate, endorphins, can enter.

But it's her continuing research into the biochemical substances called neuropeptides that have placed her at odds with conventional scientific thinking about illness and healing. After years of studying the form and function of neuropeptides (tiny bits of protein that consist of strings of amino acids), Pert has concluded that they are responsible for our emotions -- not only the familiar feelings of anger, fear, sadness, joy, contentment, and courage, but also spiritual inspiration, awe, bliss, and other states of consciousness that scientists have never physiologically explained.

Scientists have found neuropeptide receptors throughout the nervous system, and Pert's research has shown that the immune system also produces its own. She has come to believe that the brain and the nervous, endocrine, and immune systems are interlocked in a "psychoimmunoendocrine" network that serves as a multidirectional, body-wide system in which every part communicates with every other part. This concept nullifies the prevailing idea that the mind has power over the body. "Instead, emotions are the nexus between mind and matter, going back and forth between the two and influencing both," says Pert.

Goldman: Where does your work on the biochemistry of emotions part ways with conventional thinking?

Pert: For a long time, neuroscientists agreed that emotions are controlled by certain parts of the brain -- the amygdala, hippocampus, and hypothalamus. This is a big, "neurocentric" assumption that I now think is either wrong or incomplete. But when I was a believer in the brain as the most important organ in the body, this assumption led me to do the right analysis in the lab for the wrong reason. Ultimately, it fueled my conviction that there are such things as molecules of emotion.

Goldman: Where do you believe that emotions originate? In the body or the mind?

Pert: The emotional brain has always been confined to those classical locations. But my research tells me that's not the case. If we accept the idea that peptides and other informational substances are the biochemicals of emotion, their distribution throughout the body's nerves has all kinds of significance. Sigmund Freud would be delighted, because the idea that the body, in its totality, is also the unconscious mind, would be the molecular confirmation of his theories. Body and mind are simultaneous. I like to speculate that the mind is the flow of information as it moves among the cells, organs, and systems of the body. The mind, as we experience it, is immaterial, yet it has a physical substate that is both the body and the brain.


Caren Goldman is an author and freelance journalist who specializes in writing about spirituality, health, religion, psychology, popular culture, and the arts and humanities. For over 25 years, her freelance articles exploring the intersections of psychology, spirituality, science, and health have appeared in national magazines such as New Age Journal, Natural Health, Common Boundary, Yoga Journal, Intuition, Spirituality & Health, Coping, and Diabetes Self-Management as well as regional magazines and major metropolitan daily newspapers. She was the writer of the Omega Institute Mind, Body, Spirit Book: Vitality & Wellness. Her latest book, Healing Words For The Body, Mind & Spirit, will be published by Marlowe & Company in June 2001.

Candace Pert is the author of Molecules of Emotion: Why You Feel the Way You Feel

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