Some friends of mine are of a mind that human development is not only an individual lifelong process, but one that involves humanity as a whole. In other words, as a species we’re not quite done climbing up the evolutionary chain. While not a friend of mine, the cartoonist Gahan Wilson appears to be in this camp. You can see what he thinks by clicking here.
So, what might that ongoing development look like say, fifty years or a thousand years from now. Joseph Chilton Pearce thinks he might have a handle on it. In his book, The Biology of Transcendence, he argues that out beyond Paul MacLean’s Triune Brain, many of us are already well into the process of growing out our Fourth Brains – the structures that make up the orbital prefrontal cortex – and some of us are now working on our Fifth Brains. As evidence for this Fourth Brain growth, Pearce offers a series of photos of young children with foreheads extending out beyond their noses, like this one. This forehead extension, he hypothesizes, is the result of prefrontal growth so extensive, that we are in the process of maximizing all that can be contained in the human skull. So, the Fifth Brain will have to relocate elsewhere, and that “elsewhere” Pearce argues, will inevitably end up in the human heart.
The Brain in the Heart
There’s not currently a lot of support for Pearce in the medical research community. Research cardiologist J. Andrew Armour, who co-edited the medical text, Neurocardiology readily admits that there are a number of neurons in the heart – somewhere between twenty and forty thousand, as compared to one hundred billion in the brain – but that they serve a specific identified function. To grow additional new neurons in the heart, or to increase the connectivity of the neurons already there, Armour theorizes would actually interfere with optimal heart function. Interestingly, both Pearce and Armour serve on the board of the Heartmath Institute, which is actively researching the heart-brain connection. Here’s what Heartmath has to say about the brain in the heart:
The heart’s nervous system contains around 40,000 neurons, called sensory neurites, which detect circulating hormones and neurochemicals and sense heart rate and pressure information. Hormonal, chemical, rate and pressure information is translated into neurological impulses by the heart’s nervous system and sent from the heart to the brain through several afferent (flowing to the brain) pathways. It is also through these nerve pathways that pain signals and other feeling sensations are sent to the brain. These afferent nerve pathways enter the brain in an area called the medulla, located in the brain stem. The signals have a regulatory role over many of the autonomic nervous system signals that flow out of the brain to the heart, blood vessels and other glands and organs. However, they also cascade up into the higher centers of the brain, where they may influence perception, decision-making and other cognitive processes.
Don’t Know Mind
Probably the best stance to bring to this discussion is a kind of Buddhist, Don’t Know Mind. That’s a kind of open, curious wonder-full mind that healthy children bring to the world. How might the connections between the heart and brain really work? How might those connections be increased – by prayer or meditation or other contemplative practices, like knitting or quilting, golf or gardening? And what actually happens when you do? Is that what it means to have a “big heart,” and why so many saints are often depicted with a glowing red heart in the middle of their chests? Have they simply managed to somehow build out their neural real estate in an optimal manner?
Living the Questions
These are probably questions that we are going to have to live the answers to. In addition, it would probably be a good thing to help our children live the answers to them as well. In order to do that, it might be a useful assumption to consider that we, and they, all possess the possibility for growing bigger hearts and better-connected brains than we were born with. Doing so would be an early start at this late date on increasing the world’s supply of kindness.