What would it mean if our brains were passive? Passive to aspects of our environment that we are not even aware of? What would it mean literally but also as a metaphor of our hubris? What do we know and what are we prepared to hear? And given all that, what use can we make of these brains of ours?
My increasingly ancient but still spry mother read Peter Frankopan’s Silk Roads: A New History of the World. Her favourite sport is goading the sticks-in-the-mud at her local church. This history is told as the title suggests from a non-western perspective, and my mother’s summary is “Aidan, we are just specks. All this happened and we are nothing in the bigger picture”. His New Silk Roads is her preferred entry into current affairs. Maybe I am my mother’s son, without reading either book.
Let me try and rehearse a fantastic narrative from Zack Bush. I am increasingly allergic to the exuberant ‘American’ style and to medical doctors. I don’t like slick presenters, I want authenticity. I came at this from my course on soil regeneration with Didi Pershouse. And I watched an interview-style presentation that lasts 94 minutes. Ugh! And yet.
A tale of two tennis courts
Apparently the surface area of our innards, from nasal passages and through the whole gut, is about two tennis courts in area. A single cell thick: 50 microns or half a human hair. This whole organ must possess phenomenal intelligence to allow the passage of things our body needs and refuse passage to more toxic substances. Its integrity is literally vital to life and it is an active system, not a piece of clingfilm.
This system is operated by microbiota. Bacteria, fungi, parasites, viruses in a healthy ecosystem that is functional in ways we have yet to dream of. This internal ecosystem makes our food, drink, and air safe for us, dynamically. It adjusts to the weird and wonderful things we allow to go inside our bodies and largely sorts them out. Of course there is a snag because we don’t understand: we wipe out this ecosystem with anti-biotics, for ourselves and for our animals, and we spray glyphosate on our food, so much that it rains glyphosate on our organically grown produce. There is no Californian wine that does not have glyphosate in it.
It turns out that glyphosate directly damages this two-tennis-court membrane, opening the junctions between the cells in that single layer, allowing pathogens through that have to be mopped up by our immune system. If we stress this system chronically, like by ingesting glyphosate all the time, we get sick in lots of interesting ways.
Let me pause the narrative here to comment that this is one of those massive thinking mistakes we comment on in these blogs. We have been persuaded that bacteria and ‘germs’ are bad. Actually we depend on them ALL being in a healthy ecosystem and balancing each other. We cannot live with germ theory. We are not invaded by bad guys. We need to understand that everything is connected. If you sterilise a hospital you simply get the most virulent, primitive, unchecked bacteria recolonising it first. Resistant to everything we can imagine.
These microbiota are not intelligent as individual organisms. It is the system that is intelligent, vastly more intelligent than our brains. So lets move to the next part of the story: signalling. We know about nerve signalling and we know about the vast number of neurons and connections in our gut. And we know about our endocrine system and how hormones are used as chemical messengers to signal throughout the body. But we forgot to think how the microbiota communicate with each other. In fact, as usual we just forgot about things we don’t see.
Lets go back to our fantasies about DNA and genes being essentially determinative of our health and prospects. That is a very tendentious fantasy. According to Zach we have fewer genes than a flea and the vast bulk of our DNA is inserted there by bacteria and viruses. The messenger molecules that coordinate cell to cell are almost entirely manufactured by the microbiota. And by the ‘junk’ (!) portions of our DNA that is not genes. For instance, our levels of serotonin are determined by our gut microbiome’s own functioning, healthy or not.
The healthy functioning of the microbiome implies signalling between the tens and hundreds of thousands of species of bacteria and viruses and millions of species of fungus that interact in ways more complex that we can imagine. The way the story goes is that we are damaging the communication mechanism itself, so that the microbiome cannot do its job. And perhaps the best place to see the damage is in the ballooning mental health epidemic. So much for our brains!
It seems that we can restore the communication mechanism. Listen to Zack if you want the real version. But to use a medically inactive substance to restore many, many dimensions of health challenges everything a doctor ever learned. No surprise to me. And the missing organic substances that are needed for the signalling are in the soil that we also degrade like there is no tomorrow. No surprise there either. The body and its microbiotic environment will restore itself if we stop putting it under chronic stress.
The macrocosm and microcosm
Is there any doubting that we live in increasingly sterile and depleted environments? They are depleted in their visual and tactile nature. They are depleted in their chronic absence of soil and plants and insects. They tend toward monocultures and the use of biocidal chemicals. They are full of anti-bacterial wipes, gels and medicines. Sterility is sold as a virtue and as safety. We suffer depressions and mood swings. We are lonely and feel isolated. We fear strangers and their cultures.
That is the reflection, one way or another, of the sterility we cannot see and do not bother to measure. The soil runs in to the rivers and blows away on the wind because it is sterile. Rank weeds grow as they try to recolonise these damaged ecosystems and we think that the weeds are a problem. Sterility is the opposite of life itself. Life can only teem with diversity and creativity. We can read our physical and mental ill-health in our depleted environment because they are two sides of the same coin.
There is no healthy food without a healthy soil. There is no human health without healthy soil. It doesn’t feel like a big push to recognise that. How many times does the new EAT/Lancet report mention the world soil? Exactly zero times, because it is not actually about health so much as it is about policing our food choices. How difficult is this really?
So, one more step. We see migrants as a problem. We think the world would be a better place if we did not have thousands of people willing to risk their lives to try and live here rather than wherever they are fleeing from. To try to exclude them is certainly inhumane and often literally homicidal. There is the macrocosm: we try to maintain health by exclusion. That is germ theory: without the germs we will be healthy. But it doesn’t work like that. In the damaged human ecosystem caused by violent exclusion the rank weeds of nationalism grow. We get incredibly damaged people trying to defend themselves against a perceived onslaught of people running away.
It seems you have to have a cure for cancer. It is an affront to human dignity, it seems, for people to suffer so badly. The treatments are often worse than the disease. If you watch Zack Bush talk about this, and I very much recommend that you do, he talks about cancer cells being cells that have become isolated. Their metaphorical cries for help are drowned out by the general levels of chronic stress. And by the failure of the communication mechanism itself. They do the one thing left that they are able to do: reproduce wildly. So we search them out and kill them with chemo.
Here is the metaphor for our society. In the neoliberal mantra you have to stand on your own two feet. Or even “there is no such thing as society”. But cells and human beings can only survive as part of a social organisation. It is cutting the lines of communication that produces the malfunction and the disease. To say someone is ill because they are lonely and to say they are ill because their intra-cellular communication is breaking down is almost the same thing, so closely do the macrocosm and microcosm reproduce each other. This is not a matter of political viewpoint, it is a matter of life and death, no to mention death in life.
Not only have hospitals set themselves a totally misguided Sisyphean task of keeping their environment sterile, but we have adopted a medical style of trying to kill the bad guys to keep ourselves safe. I cannot work and it does not work, despite all the propaganda to the contrary. And if you fancy trying to turn that ship around, you are a better man than I am, Gunga Din.
Our minds do some smart stuff, even if we lament the hubris that leads us to the edge of self-annihilation. But if you think about something as simple and as common as having a disturbed sleep pattern, we see very readily the limitations of the mind. Thinking about not sleeping really doesn’t help.
We rely on our emotional response to tell us when something isn’t right or what our needs in a situation are, but that response is coloured by a mood that is likely to be a product of a dysfunction in our gut microbiome. If only because those dysfunctions are so widespread, so much the norm. Our brain can only do its smart stuff in a highly specialised and protected environment: an environment we are degrading. That can’t end well.
Here is the other model: we can only do smart stuff inside the protective and specialised environment that our bodies provide.
So, how about maintaining the health of the environment so that the mechanisms that provide that protective environment can work? How about taking care of the conditions in which we can work? How about paying attention to all the ways in which our ecosystems become less fertile, flourish less, are less abundant and creative? Because that is the only way in which our smarts can work.
I think the notion of the passive brain is a fertile thought. It is not hard to see our “leaders” as passive to the chronic stress they create at all levels of microcosm to macroscosm. Zack Bush has a brief riff about monitoring the physical health of both candidates in the last US election, seeing the dramatic sickness and stress of both. We need to know that nothing good can come from a situation where passive brains merely express the paranoia they feel.
Maybe the ultimate antidote to the hubris that will kill us is to be able to accept the passivity of our own brains. To let our minds accept that they float on an unimaginable collaboration of life forms that we can never comprehend. To rely on a sense of health and thriving in domains we have suppressed in all our recent history. We cannot think this one through any more than we can think ourselves into sound sleep. So basic and so inaccessible.
We make models of the world and narratives about our place there. And we believe them rather than have the patience to observe. How much of our science, despite all the rhetoric, is actually about coming to understand what we do not know, and the vital role played by things we do not understand yet? Why do we push so hard to get our hubristic “solutions” to work rather than listen for what we need to know? When are we going to change?
 And we’re not alone in this longing. Happily there’s a trend towards presentations by semi-polished amateurs. Over the years we’ve both come to mistrust ready answers and slickness, preferring the fumbling messiness of real thinking, real reactions. Charlie Munger, in his speech the 24 standard causes of human misjudgement, noted that it’s important to know enough about a subject in order to stop your chosen expert from diagnosing on autopilot, to force some genuine thought.
 Evolution, of course, works through the mechanism of death as much as through survival. Kill off some of one thing, and other things may take its place, recover more quickly, etc. Nature abhors a vacuum, and all that.
 We’ve written previously about communication between plants/trees. One anecdote about acacia bushes sending messages in the wind, and one about how quickly something applied to the upper portion of one ‘individual’ tree is circulated through the roots/undersoil/air to other trees.
 Dare I suggest that this is not entirely unlike Marie Kondo’s notion of sparking joy? Paying attention to what diminishes various kinds of joy in a healthy ecosystem/environment is a good use of what smarts we have left.
 Tracking the visible health of people in high office is an idea. Tony Blair visibly aged in office (one wag said that this was a comfort, that he was taking the job seriously…). GW Bush degraded rather severely across his political career.