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BodyMind: Candace Pert - The Physiology of Learning


In Molecules of Emotion: The Science Behind Mind-Body Medicine, Candace Pert begins to map out a physiological basis for learning. The insights presentede by Pert have a direct connection to David Simon's insights into Vital Energy as well as Richard Restak's insights into plasticity and the brain. Each of these authors are in effect mapping out the unity that exists between mind, body, and spirit. In Molecules of Emotion: The Science Behind Mind-Body Medicine Candace Pert begins to map out cellular connections from brain to mind to body that have a direct impact on our emotional health and well-being.

Most psychologists treat the mind as disembodied, a phenomenon with little or no connection to the physical body. Conversely physicians treat the body with no regard to the mind or the emotions. But the body and mind are not separate, and we cannot treat one without the other.

Research has shown that the body can and must be healed through the mind and the mind can and must be healed through the body.
- Molecules of Emotion: The Science Behind Mind-Body Medicine

The idea of the bodymind, or mind-body connection, is explored in a manner that integrates physiology with experience. My interest here is in exploring references to learning and physiology...

The Bodymind: A Molecular Basis For Learning

Physiology is a branch of science devoted to the study of the vital processes of living things. Developing a deeper understanding of learning from physiological perspective is an important and emerging area of research. In Molecules of Emotion: The Science Behind Mind-Body Medicine Pert addresses three key questions:

  1. Why (from a physiological perspective) do we feel the way we feel?
  2. How do our thoughts and emotions (mind) affect our health (body)?
  3. How do the mind and body function together as parts of an interconnected system?

A key area of focus for Pert are emotions. Wikipedia provides a useful definition of emotions in this context:

Emotion is the realm where thought and physiology are inextricably entwined, and where the 'self' is inseparable from our individual perceptions of value and judgement toward ourselves and others.
- Wikipedia

This definition captures the linkage between the mind and the body, or what Pert refers to as the bodymind throughout her book. The basic idea of the bodymind is that emotions are networks of linkages that that weave the mind to the body. She refers to four interconnected dimensions of emotion:

  1. the familiar human experiences of anger, fear and sadness, as well as joy, contentment and courage;
  2. basic sensations such as pleasure and pain;
  3. the 'drive states' studied by experimental psychologists, such as hunger and thirst; and
  4. other intangible, subjective experiences that are probably unique to humans, such as inspiration, awe, bliss, and other states of consciousness." (131-132)

- Molecules of Emotion: The Science Behind Mind-Body Medicine

Our emotions are, obviously, pervasive in our learning experiences not only in terms of how our minds experience them but how our bodies experience them. In fact, the mind cannot be properly understood without the body. The mind-body connection is integral.

Emotions and Learning

Pert makes a number of references to learning throughout Molecules of Emotion: The Science Behind Mind-Body Medicine. In doing so, she opens up another understanding of learning that is not conventional.
  • The Capacity For Learning: Although the capacity for learning is to some extent present in even the simplest of creatures, willpower is the uniquely human 'ghost in the machine.'(135)
  • Learning as Neural Network: Think of the brain as a machine not for merely filtering and storing this sensory input, but for associating it with other events or stimuli occurring simultaneously at any synapse or receptor along the way - that is, learning. (142)
  • Dissociated states of learning Just as a drug facilitates recall of an earlier learning experience under the influence of that same drug for the rat, so emotion-carrying peptide ligand [a molecule that binds to a receptor or protein] facilitates memory in human beings. Not only is memory affected by the mood we're in, but so is actual performance. Clearly, just as drugs affect what we remember, neuropeptides can act as internal ligands to shape our memories as we are forming them, and put us back in the same frame of mind when we need to retrieve them. This is learning. In fact, we have shown that the hippocampus of the brain, without which we cannot learn anything new, is a nodal point for neuropeptides receptors, containing virtually all of them. (144-145)
  • Our emotions decide what is worth paying attention to. (146)

There is a plethora of elegant neurophysiological data suggesting that the nervous system is not capable of taking in everything, but can only scan the outer world for material that it is prepared to find by virtue of its wiring hookups, its own internal patterns, and its past experience. (147)
- Molecules of Emotion: The Science Behind Mind-Body Medicine

This reminds me of Edward Hall's work on the idea of the "hidden language" of culture, and also of Howard Gardner's theories about the cultural context of intelligence. Different cultures have different assumptions and preconceptions about the world we live in. Perhaps then the physical structure our bodymind network varies from culture to culture each containing an assortment of pancultural elements, biocultural-specific elements, and uniquely individual elements. If this is the case, then the physiology of learning can be explored as the simultaneity of pancultural universals in combination with the customized elements of biocultural bias and individual physiological bias.

Does the sum of the peptide secretions in our brains and bodies - our emotional state - bias our memory and behavior so we automatically get what we expect?
- Molecules of Emotion: The Science Behind Mind-Body Medicine

The Physiology Of Learning

The idea that learning has a physiological basis is not new but is still in an emergent stage. In the descriptions above, learning is positioned as a subset of emotions and intimately connected with memory. One core idea of learning here is that it is fundamentally associative in nature (from a bodymind perspective), that is, it is incorrect to locate learning as something that occurs exclusively in the brain (biology) or mind (psychology). Pert mentions that "past experience" directly influences the molecular structure of the bodymind network, therefore, culture - one context for our past experiences - might be seen as a kind of environment that changes the physical structures of the bodymind. This is not unlike McLuhan's insights about the effects of media and how they can bias our perception and attention. Perhaps media, then, is another kind of environment that influences these physical structures.

The emotions are the informational content that is exchanged via the psychosomatic network, with the many systems, organs, and cells participating in the process. Like information, then, the emotions travel between the two realms of mind and body, as the peptides and their receptors in the physical realm, and as the feelings we experience and call emotions in the nonmaterial realm." [Pert, Candace. Molecules of Emotion: The Science Behind Mind-Body Medicine, p261.]

Accepting that the "emotions are the informational content," we might then think about learning as the ways in which that content is communicated throughout the psychosomatic network.

Medicated Body + Medicated Mind = Medicated Learning

If the meaning we derive from our experience is inherently connected to our unavoidable lifelong psychsomatic dialogue, then learning is a phenomenon that extends far beyond our current ideas about education and training. Depression, a scourge in society, is an important area that the bodymind connection is being intensively explored by those who know that pills and chats may provide temporary relief but aren't enough. How do people learn to feel the intensity of hopelessness and futility that they do when depressed? The stress and anxiety fostered in the societies we create for ourselves can cause physical changes in our brain and body triggering a bodymind conversation that results in the feeling of depression. In a sense, the depressed person becomes trapped in a negative biochemical feedback loop and is simultaneously trapped in a negative experiential loop. We, by virtue of our psychosomatic network, learn to experience emotions in certain ways. The ecology of depression is sustained via the informational content that is freely communicated across the mind-body network. Our thinking learns to be depressed. Our bodies learn to be depressed. We feel depressed. As unhappy as this is, it is an example of learning.

Of course, while receiving a great deal of attention, depression is not the only emotional content that is exchanged across the mind-body. Bliss, happiness, joy, contentment are all information exchanges in the psychosomatic network. These exchanges across the body-mind are also learned. The point here is that learning is completely immersed in this mind-body connection, or the bodymind. If we were now to try and describe what a learning environment is we might say that it is nothing less than our total surround that serves to connect our biochemical systems at a molecular level through to the experience of everyday living.

Drugs, both prohibited and acceptable, have a direct impact on our biology and therefore our learning. Freely available drugs like caffeine, refined sugar, alcohol and nicotine are all part of the psychosomatic network as are illegal drugs such as cocaine and heroin. Lying somewhere in between are prescription drugs, or those drugs that have a controlled distribution with many side effects that, I suspect, are yet to be fully revealed. All of these drugs, as well as the toxins in our natural environment, influence the dialogue that takes place across the bodymind. Our minds are influenced leading us to believe that they must influence the ways in which we build meaning and understanding. Our bodies are also influence leading us to believe that specific kinds of biochemical responses result in specific kinds of feelings. This in turn may mean that meaning and understanding have far more to do with the emotions than what we have previously considered.

Learning and the BodyMind

To ignore this innate mind-body interactivity in learning is folly. One of our problems in getting to the inside of learning is not so much a lack of expertise, but instead the tendency for expertise to operate in isolation from other kinds of expertise. People like Candace Pert help to show us the way to a more integrated style of thinking that respects the value that expertise offers while at the same time constantly seeking to connect it to other areas of expertise, not so much as an interdisciplinary exercise but instead as an exercise in living life as fully as possible. The nodes where not only the various disciplines but also the life experiences of people find unity is the place that is intimately connected with learning.

Mind doesn't dominate body, it becomes body - body and mind are one. I see the whole process of communication we have demonstrated, the flow of information throughout the whole organism, as evidence that the body is the actual outward manifestation, in physical space, of the mind. Bodymind, a term first proposed by Dianne Connelly, reflects the understanding, derived from Chinese medicine, that the body is inseparable from the mind.
- Pert, Candace. Molecules of Emotion: The Science Behind Mind-Body Medicine, p187.


  • Candace Pert's Website
  • Candace Pert: The Institute For New Medicine
  • Candace Pert: Molecules of Emotion - The Science Behind Mind-Body Medicine
  • Candace Pert: Interview - Science and Spirit
  • Furl Social Bookmarks: Brain
  • Furl Social Bookmarks: Candace Pert
  • Google Scholar: Candace Pert: Molecules of Emotion
  • Wikipedia: Candace Pert
  • Wikipedia: Emotion
  • Wikipedia: Physiology
  • Wikipedia: Human Physiology


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