Neuroscience and Karma ► 06. Rhythmic Living and Living Clocks

Posted: 02.07.2015

0. Fruition and Bondage of Karman

Cycle of the fruition of the old karman and bondage of the new karman is continuous and without break. As we have seen, fruition produces instincts which not only generate feelings but also command appropriate actions that satisfy the need. Animals just act out instinctive rituals of survival and reproduction by eating, mating and fighting. Man also does feel angry, hungry sexually aroused but he can, because he has the reasoning mind, control his responses to the insistence of the instinctive drives and modify his action. He could, for example, channel an erotic mood on to another creative track, or reject fatty food after a look at his bulging waist line. Both - instinctive actions of the animal and modified ones of man - result in the bondage of new karman. All actions come through the brain. The simple nerve network that is the brain of a jellyfish, the simplest of animals, has a few simple programs that keep it afloat and seeking for food. Higher mammals such as ourselves have many more complex programs. We shall try to get further insight into them in the following paragraphs.

1. Hierarchy of Controls

We may gain further insight into brain programs by looking first at some rhythmic actions that are generated within nervous systems. The conduct of a complex life like ours involves an elaborate hierarchy of controls, many of which operate rhythmically. These internal rhythmical processes as well as external activities continue all the time producing our behavioural patterns.

An analogy, perhaps will be useful to understand the correspondence between the structural and functional characteristics of the nervous system and the life that it regulates. Computers are, in a sense, artificial brains and in a most general sense the analogy of computer programs can be helpful. More useful may be the concept of a hierarchy of controls. E.g., in a complicated organization such as an army, it is essential to separate functions at different levels. Each level can thus operate with a minimum of information and memory whether it be the general in command or a humble corporal of a section.

Computers and brains use the hierarchical system extensively on the motor side, general indication of courses of action are produced at the highest level and passes to lower ones such as the spinal cord where details of execution are organized. At the lowest level, more nerve-cells regulate the detailed movements of, say, limbs In the human brain, the cerebral cortex exercises a great deal of overriding control and we can identify many lower levels. The spinal cord cointains the basic reflex mechanisms for the control of movements of the body and limbs. The cerebellum, among other functions, ensure that the movements are steady and properly timed. The reticular system at the center of the brain has a central function in activating all the rest, for instance, by the control of sleep and wakeful ness. The hypothalamus and neighbouring regions contain the system of reference standards, which ensure that the whole brain takes the action* that are needed for continued life. The cerebral cortex, the largest part of the brain, is concerned with analysis of incoming information and deciding what to do in the light of memory-records stored from the past. Although the arrangement is hierarchical, yet the cortex exerts much detailed control, for instance, on the movement of individual muscles. This emphasizes the extent to which the operations of the human brain constitute one whole, more fully integrated than in other species. This very fact that there is so little 'delegation' of control may be reflected in the unity of the individual mind, being the program of a unified brain.

Animals and men live out patterns of activity, following programs of instructions partly inherited and partly learned. These programs are written or initiated in the hierarchical structure and activities of the nervous system. An essential feature is that the patterned activity is generated from within. The programs unfold themselves, without waiting for stimuli, although the former often need the latter for their fulfilment.

2. Rhythms of Life

Some programs ate performed with basic rhythms that are intrinsic to a cell group in the brain. From our first breath to our last gasp, the nerve-cells of the respiratory centers go through rhythmical changes that provide us with oxygen by breathing. These are nerve-cells that never come to rest, incidentally showing that repose and sleep, whatever they are for, are not essential for basic nervous functions. Also there are sensors in the lungs and in certain sites along the arteries that measure the amounts of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the blood and send messages to the respiratory centers, producing an increase or decrease in the rate of breathing.

Many other programs seem much more exciting than respiration, say the program for speaking or for loving. But let us not despise breathing, after all it is essential and has provided us with a simple example of understanding the brain.

Nearly all the more important programs are compounds of rhythms with periodicities initiated within the organism and stimuli provided from outside. When we eat, drink, we use programs that involve internal rhythms. They are initiated by learned or unlearned instincts which command appropriate action to meet the need and produce the satisfaction of consummation or fulfillment. Both the internal changes and external stimuli are essential for the satisfactory action. It may be recalled that the programs are written by the various sub-species of body-making (nāma) karman as well as life-span-determining (āyuṣya) karman in the features of bodily and nervous anatomical and physiological organization that ensures the performance of these actions.

3. Interaction of Feeling and Behavior

Nerve-cells and their connections are organized into higher assemblies of neurons that operate reflex actions such as blinking or drawing away the hand from a hot plate. But the behaviour even of simple animals, cannot be described as the consequence only of reflexes, as if they were puppets performing a series of movements dictated by the environment. In man, as indeed in all animals, much of the impetus to act comes from within. Our behaviour involves an elaborate interaction of nervous system (of which the brain is the main constituent) and endocrine system. Philosophers, as well as scientists - including neuroscientists agree that hormones secreted by endocrines have profound influence on our mental states and behaviourial patterns.

The coordinating effects of the nervous system, as we have seen, are transmitted, nearly instantaneously by electro-chemical impulses. The endocrines secrete chemical messengers (hormones) which are carried through the body by the blood stream. The action of the latter is more slowly established but longer lasting than that of the former. While nerve-action is measured in milli-seconds, some hormones need several days to get started and then last for weeks, months or even years. Nerve-impulses control the function only of muscles while hormones may act on all the cells of the body. Lately, it has been realized that nervous and endocrine systems, both functioning to integrate the organism, are not as divergent as was formerly supposed. Many endocrine glands act on the nervous system through their hormones; on the other hand, endocrines are stimulated or inhibited by products of the nervous system.

Within the central nervous system, there are groups of nerve-cells, which are capable of functioning as glands. The chemical messengers released by these neurosecretory cells are called neurohormones. These cells serve as links between the central nervous system and the endocrine system. With the help of these dual cells acting as go-between, the central nervous system can control the functional activity of many endocrine glands, and adjust their activity in accordance with the requirements of varying internal and external environments. Equally or more important is the reverse relationship by which the endocrine system can influence the central nervous system. This concept of the reciprocal inter-relation of the two systems is now generally accepted. For instance, pituitary which is described as the conductor of the endocrine orchestra is itself controlled by the overlying hypothalamus which is a very important part of the brain. The pituitary gland produces some dozen different hormones, which control many medium-and long-term functions such as sex, reproduction and location, growth, metabolism and thyroid activity.[1] Thus inter-connection of pituitary and hypothalamus is a typical instance of the interlocking of the two systems.

Recent studies on neuro-secretions leave no doubt that the nervous system has its own endocrine specialization for the release of hormones. The functional interlocking is so remarkable that nervous and endocrine elements are coming to be regarded as constituting a single integrated system called neuro-endocrine system. As research deepens our knowledge of coordinator systems, it becomes increasingly apparent that their products participate not only in every bodily function, but have profound influence upon the mental states and behaviour of individuals.

The neuro-endocrine system is the seat of feelings, emotions and passions of man. Impulses and urges which are the forerunners of emotions and passions,[2] not only generate feelings but also command appropriate action that satisfy the need. To understand the behaviour and its determinants, it is not enough to know about nerve-cells and their connections. We have to appreciate all the manifold influences that determine what we may call our moods and all the facts of human behaviour.

Love, hate and fear are endocrine expressions. It is the primitive urge of aggression from the endocrine, that will start war and not the brain, because no reasoning mind will ever wish to kill or injure. All the passions, emotions and impelling forces are the actions of the endocrine expressions. The reasoning mind itself has no emotions but many a time the powerful impulses from the endocrine can overwhelm and continue to tinge the supposed reasoning. Urges and impulses, the precursors of the emotions, are not produced either by brain or by endocrine. In fact, these are forces more subtle than those found in the physical body. They are produced in the microbody (karmana śarīra) as a result of the rise of the bonded karman (karmaphala). Thus karmana śarīra is the origin of all impulsive forces and the mundane soul is always enveloped by karmana śarīra. The radiations of psychic energy have to pass through this enveloping field and their interaction (called adhyavasāya) proceeds further towards the gross physical body. At the border of the subtle body, they are transformed into urges and impulses which will later produce fellings and emotions in the physical body (see diagram).

4. Living Clocks/Hormonal Rhythms

"Many features of our life operate with periodicities of from seconds and minutes to months and years."[3] The brain and (endocrine) glands, between them, generate these rhythmic programs and there has been a great advance in understanding of how they do it.

Basic rhythms are a very fundamental feature of human programs and several of them arise by cells in the hypothalamus acting as clocks and controlling the pituitary gland. The operations of the pituitary are themselves controlled by the overlying hypothalamus, as stated earlier. The hypothalamus, besides carrying electrical nerve signals, also control the pituitary by the production of special active chemical substance, the process known as neurosecretion. The hormones of the cortex of the adrenal gland have fundamentally important influence on every cell of the body. These adrenal secretions are produced in man, mainly just before dawn, as if to be ready for their job of toning us up throughout the day. These rhythms are produced partly by changes in the amount of the adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) released by the pituitary, and partly by an intrinsic periodicity in the cells of the adrenal gland itself. This example reminds us that there are complicated interacting feedback systems, even in these rather slow-going parts of the program. In the brain, the hypothalamus sends an ACTH-releasing factor from its nerve-cells to the pituitary. These nerve-cells are no doubt influenced by all sorts of cerebral activities. There is, indeed, evidence that alteration of these circadian rhythms may have very profound effects on metabolism, perhaps including influences on the length of life.

The pineal body, another gland located within the brain, is believed to be the biological clock which controls the period of maturation (puberty). During the first few years of life, its chief duty is to give the child (both male & female) to grow properly. It secretes a hormone called melatonin which inhibits the gonads (sex glands) and holds the sexual activity in abeyance, in childhood. This mechanism is, thus, the basis of our own most fundamental programs, the lengthening of childhood and delayed onset of puberty. Probably a genetic mechanism that keeps the pineal gland active fora period (14 years for boys - 12years for girls), is responsible for one of the most fundamental features of our whole life system. It is significant that in adults, there is little or no melatonin in the blood, because it is no longer needed for its original purpose. Human reproduction is not cyclic like that of some animals.

Finally, the sleeping - waking rhythm is controlled by the neurons of the Raphe[4] near the mid-ventral line, which produce serotonin (5-HT). Injection of a drug that prevents 5-HT synthesis produces insomnia. In antagonism, substances such as adrenaline produce awakening. Probably they have effects upon different parts of the reticular system.

The rhythmic brain programs show that men (and animals) are provided by their genes with clocks and also with the equipment needed to maintain these rhythms throughout the length of the day. This is what we are calling, for convenience, a program. It is a physical system of nerve cells whose organization constitutes a coded store of instructions, compounded of heredity, karman, and learning. It is obvious that such programs regulate many of our more routine actions throughout our lives, making us wake and sleep, eat and play, grow and age. In other chapters we shall have to see whether we can identify similar information-stores as the basis for the more complicated things that we do, including loving and hating, knowing and thinking, and even believing and worshipping. We do these things only in part rhythmically, but they are actions coming from within the system. All living action comes essentially from within, as a result of the operation of the programs, in part inherited, in part acquired. These programs co-operate with the signals coming from the sense-organs, but even these are not simply imposed on us. What we see and hear is largely the result of our own programs for searching, some of which follow habitual rhythms.

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