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Psyche and Soma:
Of course if we view all illnesses as being the results of genetic deficiencies, physical traumas, chemical toxins, or the invasions of micro-organisms, then “learning” to be sick or well does not make any sense. The word “psychosomatic” itself usually suggests a disturbance that is not after all a “real” sickness. Psychosomatic disorders are “in the head,” and have little to do with the actual function or dysfunction of our nerves and organs.
And yet over and over, in many different situations, we find demonstrated that this strict separation of what is “in the head” from what is “in the tissues” is not an accurate representation of reality. Whatever is happening in the brain will inevitably find its way into the tissues, and through these avenues depression, anxiety, anger, and the like are as capable of damaging the organism as are accidents, diphtheria, or cirrhosis.
The relationships between our experiences, our feelings, and our body chemistry are undoubtedly far more intricate than we can presently imagine. We have seen how specific mental states effect specific glandular secretions, circulatory patterns, organ functions. If we now remind ourselves that every nerve cell is itself a type of gland, a gland whose chemical secretions are the mechanisms for carrying action potentials from cell to cell, we can appreciate the fact that there is probably no limit to the influencing of function and behavior by feelings and attitudes.
What we are given by genetics is the schematic layout for this system of neural glands, a layout that replicates itself in astonishing derail in individual after individual. But the number of impulses, the patterns of the impulses, and the material effects of those impulses by this generically standardized layout can fluctuate so widely from individual to individual, and even from rime to time in the same individual, that our functional and behavioral differences are equally as striking as are our generic constants.
One of the things that is becoming increasingly clear in neurological research is that mere anatomical constants in the structure of neural circuits does not neces¬sarily imply functional constants in the actual activities in those circuits. Nowhere in the body do we find experience, attitude, and chemistry more reciprocally interwoven than in the performance of the neural cell itself. Both habitua¬tion and sensitization by far the most common modes of processing sensory information to establish selective awareness, memory, habit, associations, and so on-appear to operate by virtue of variations in the chemical secretions of the presynaptic cell membrane, and in the fluctuations of those secretions lies one of the principle mechanisms for the organization of our thoughts, our actions, our postures, our mental outlook.
Habituation is the gradual decaying of a nerve cell’s response that occurs when an initially novel stimulus is repeated over and over. I habituate a sensation when I cease to hear background conversation while I am reading intently, or when I cease to consciously feel a shirt that I have put on, even though it continues to rub my skin. Although its mechanism is very simple, habituation is probably the most prevalent of all forms of learning. Without this screening device, we could estab¬lish no orderly background/foreground relationship of stimuli in our conscious¬ness, and every sensory message would register itself just as forcefully as all the others and demand an equal response-a hopeless cacophony of sensations and twitches.
The presynaptic membrane of each nerve cell is the site of this dampening of repeated stimuli. Less and less transmitting substance-acetylcholine or one of the other neurotransmitters-tends to be released from the presynaptic membrane of a cell when it is stimulated over and over in the same manner. If it is established over a relatively brief period of repetitions, this decrease in chemical secretion gives rise to short term memory-even after the repetition is stopped, the cell remains indifferent to the renewed onset of an identical stimulus for a short period of time. And if the repetitions continue for long enough, the amount of neurotransmitter released remains diminished for long periods of time, perhaps even permanently in some cases. When this occurs, a datum of long term memory is established, an enduring neurological shift, a chemical storage of a bit of our experience.
Notice here the remarkable plasticity of the nervous system, even at the level of individual cells: Even though the physical circuitry remains unchanged, the actual nature of every synaptic transmission may either fluctuate rapidly or be set more or less permanently, as these bits of memory come and go or accumulate and reinforce one another. And even though the outside world has not changed, my awareness of and response to a bit of it has been diminished. It is easy to see why this dampening effect is absolutely necessary in order to focus my attention, but it is also easy to see how it could become dangerous as well: My attention is shifted away from certain stimulations, but in some cases those stimulations, numbingly repetitive or not, may in fact be very significant to this or that function over long periods of time.