Welcome back to the Healing Pain Podcast with Thomas R Verny, MD
In this episode, we’re discussing the concept of the embodied mind with internationally renowned author and psychiatrist, Dr. Thomas R. Verny. Our current understanding of the way the human body works is that it is a series of interdependent physiological relationships. No one component works alone or in isolation. But why is it that the accepted understanding of the physical phenomena of the mind is conventionally attributed only to the brain? The work of Dr. Verny is redefining our concept of both the mind and the human consciousness. He has brilliantly compiled a new list of research that points to the fact that the mind is tied to every single part of the body. This has enormous implications for how we view the mind, consciousness, and even human behavior. More specifically, it changes how we think about the experience of pain and pain management. Tune in and discover what it really means when we say the mind is a function of every system in your body.
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The Embodied Mind: Understanding The Mysteries Of Cellular Intelligence With Thomas R. Verny, MD
We’re discussing the concept of the embodied mind with internationally renowned author and psychiatrist, Dr. Thomas R. Verny. Our current understanding of the way the human body works is that it is a series of interdependent physiological relationships. That includes things like muscle interacting with bone. Your heart responds to different hormones that are secreted by the brain. This goes all the way down to how one cell can communicate with another cell to make our human organism or human body function. No one component works alone or in isolation.
In light of this, why is it that the accepted understanding of the physical phenomena of the mind is attributed only to the brain? The work of Dr. Verny is redefining our concept of both the mind and the human consciousness. He has brilliantly compiled a new list of research that points to the fact that the mind is tied to every single part of the body. The mind is not just located inside your brain. Dr. Verny’s concept of the embodied mind collects research findings from the areas of physiology, genetics, psychology, and quantum physics to illustrate the mounting evidence that our body cells or our somatic cells, not just the brain and nerve cells, are able to store memory.
This has implications for how we view the mind, consciousness, and even human behavior. I find this to be a fascinating topic and one that’s especially important in pain care because we have put so much emphasis on the brain. With that, we conflate oftentimes that the mind and the brain are working together when a lot of research supports the fact that the mind is a function of every system in your body. Your entire body is a representation of your mind. This has implications for health, wellness, disease, and how we view pain and trauma recovery. Without further ado, let’s begin and meet Dr. Verny and learn about the embodied mind.
Dr. Verny, thanks for joining me.
How are you?
I’m doing great. I‘m excited to chat with you. Everyone else is very interested in learning about your work. As I mentioned in our pre–introduction here, I did read your book cover to cover. I recommend people read it. It’s a fascinating read. It’s steeped in science, which is wonderful. The book is called The Embodied Mind: Understanding the Mysteries of Cellular Memory, Consciousness, and Our Bodies. There’s so much in there that speaks to both the mental and physical health challenges that people are struggling with nowadays. Your training is in psychiatry. Why was it important for you to write a book on embodiment?
It goes back a long time. When I was thirteen years old, I was in Vienna. I’m originally from Czechoslovakia. I was born in Bratislava, so I did not speak German. The first book that I read in German after I learned how to speak German was Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams. That turned me on to psychoanalysis. It is then that I made up my mind that I would become a psychiatrist. I did become a psychiatrist, but I continued to be interested in dreams. Dreams often took me back to my patients’ childhoods. I became very interested in memory and early memories. Early memories then took me to birth and even the prenatal stage.
As you probably know, I wrote the book, The Secret Life of the Unborn Child. That was in 1982, a long time ago. That became an international bestseller. It’s still going strong. It has been translated into 27 languages now. One of the things that have always bothered me was that there was very good scientific evidence to show that children from the end of the second trimester or, in other words, six months after conception, had developed their brain sufficiently to lay down memories, but there was nothing to support any case histories or what people would say on the hypnosis that would support scientifically the possibility of laying down memories before the age of six months.
Since the writing of that book and being involved with births and prenatal psychology, I was always interested in memory. Years ago, I read this report in one of the scientific journals about a 44-year-old Frenchman who went to see his doctor because he had a weakness in his left leg. The doctor did many laboratory tests and X-rays. To the complete astonishment of the doctor and the patient, they found that the patient had virtually no brain. Where his brain was supposed to be in his skull, there was only a thin crust of brain tissue. The rest of his skull was cerebral spinal fluid, which is called, in medical parlance, hydrocephalus. It’s just water.
This man was gainfully employed in the French Civil Service. He was the father of two children. For all intents and purposes, he acted normal. He thought normally. That made me stop in my tracks. I thought to myself, “How is this possible? How can a man with no brain be so normal?” That’s when I started looking into the fact that there were a lot of reports in the scientific literature about people who have had half of their brain removed for seizures or because of tumors and all kinds of other reasons.
I became interested to see what allows these people to have memory and what allows them to function normally. If it’s not the brain, where are these memories stored? Where is the mind? If you look at the medical literature and neuroscience, 95% of neuroscientists believe that the mind is the product of the brain. They call it a function of the brain or an epiphenomenon. For example, urine is a function of the kidneys, but when you stop and think about that, surely the mind cannot be equated with urine. It’s a different phenomenon. That’s when I started researching.
My book took me seven years to write because I wanted to make sure that what I was onto was scientifically validated. The book then identifies that and details it. I came to the conclusion that all the cells in the body, including the brain, work together. It’s like a backup system on your computer. It’s iCloud. The whole body acts as a holistic system or a backup system to everything that we think and feel and to our minds so that the mind, rather than being a function of the brain alone, is a function of the whole body. When you think about it, it makes a lot of sense. That’s how I came to the conclusion of calling it the embodied mind because it’s not the old brain-mind. It’s the embodied mind.
It’s interesting to think about the example of a person with little brain tissue. In our society, we’re very neuro–centric or brain–centric. We look at the brain as the seat of the mind. We also look at the brain as the seat of intelligence. With the idea of not having a brain, how could you possibly survive? Although those of us who work in physical rehabilitation and other areas of healthcare realize that people have brain injuries and strokes. You do see function return at times.
Part of that is our culture because we have been in a patriarchal culture for God knows how many centuries. The patriarchal culture very much is oriented toward the head. Who is the head honcho? Who heads this committee? The president is the head of the government. It’s always the head. Medicine, philosophy, and all the other sciences have bought into that system unknowingly or unconsciously. Everything is top-down. What I’m calling for in my book is we need the brain, but we also have to look at the bottom-up system. We also have to look at the rest of the body.Everything about the way we think about the mind and body is top-down. We do need the brain but we also have to look at the bottom-up system. We also have to look at the rest of the body. Click To Tweet
It is so important because if you look at brain diseases like Alzheimer’s, and you are too young to worry about it, but when you get to my age, all my friends and family all worry, “I’ve forgotten the name of this or that. Is this the beginning of Alzheimer’s?” What do neuroscientists do? They look at the brain and try to find what is a counter to the amyloid plaques that seem to be part of Alzheimer’s, but scientists in Australia have been able to find that the liver produces amyloid proteins. These amyloid proteins go to the brain and produce Alzheimer’s, but should we not look also at these amyloid proteins that are produced in the liver?
If we would be able to stop their production or their delivery at least to the brain, we could perhaps prevent Alzheimer’s, but scientists by and large don’t look at anything below the neck to see what is going on in the brain. This is one of the problems that we are facing. One more example is the gut. I’m sure that you know, and hopefully, many of our audiences know that gut bacteria have become incredibly important in health and disease. Whatever happens in the gut influences the brain, and whatever happens in the brain influences the gut. Once again, we have to look at this system rather than cut off the brain from the rest of the body.
We have mentioned a bunch of terms so far. People know the brain is an organ. We have mentioned the word minds, but you’ve taken some care to build out your construct. The mind is more than the function of the brain. This idea of an embodied mind is the processes of your entire body and physiology. How do you define embodiment? It’s part of your book and your thesis here.
Embodied to me means that it is a function of the whole body. Rather than looking at individual cells, individual tissues, or individual organs like the brain, it is all of that together. For a long time, we have had this phrase of mind-body therapy. Harvard University has got a health letter that they send out every week. They sent out a health letter about the fact that your mind influences your gut. That’s true. If you have anxiety, you’re more likely to produce ulcers, but they never talk about the fact that we carry about five pounds of bacteria in our gut. It’s huge.
These also affect the brain because these little bacteria produce millions of substances that have an effect on the brain. For example, serotonin is mostly produced in the gut. The lack of serotonin has been involved in depression. It is thought by some people that a lack of serotonin at least adds to the possibility of the development of depression. We have all these anti-depressant drugs that are supposed to increase serotonin in the brain, but the fact is that serotonin is produced in the gut mostly.
Once again, when we talk about the embodied mind, it’s very difficult to define the mind. Consciousness is a little bit easier. The mind is difficult, but it’s one of those words that most of us know what we mean by it, but it’s difficult to define. All I can say is that rather than it being just a product or a function of the brain, it involves the whole body and much more than that. It probably involves also everything around us, like the universe. When you get deeply into quantum mechanics and study the mind and consciousness, it’s very difficult to escape some awareness of a spiritual dimension of the mind.
Our minds might be very much part of a greater mind out there. I really don’t know. I’m speaking on my podcast to a lot of people who know much more about the mind, consciousness, and spirituality than I do. There is a strong feeling out there among clever intellectual people who feel that our mind is connected to something other than our bodies in addition to being connected to our bodies, but this is still a mystery to me. All I can say is that I’m certain that it’s not just the brain but that it is the whole body, which is why I called the book The Embodied Mind.
You also mentioned the social context, which starts to point a little bit to the growing theory of embodied cognition, which recognizes that there are bottom–up as well as top–down processes that happen, but also, your human body is embedded within a social construct. That environment is having an impact on you.
It’s like concentric circles. Here’s our body, and then there’s the body politic out there, the community which influences us, the culture, the climate, the environment, and then the larger universe. Beyond our constellation and our universe, there is an infinite number of universes out there. It’s a mysterious world that we live in. At one time years ago, scientists thought that they had answered all the questions. Now, we are finding that there are more questions than answers.
It is interesting to think that our mind can extend beyond our body. If minds are extending beyond our bodies and our minds, in some way, are interacting, then it means that the poor health of your mind in Canada could impact my well-being here in New York City.
You wonder about the suffering that is present in our world all the time. I saw a movie. It was called The Swimmers. Have you heard of it?
It’s about two sisters from Syria, Damascus who escaped. When you watch them as refugees trying to go from Syria to Germany, those poor people went through degradation and suffering. That’s just two people. That’s being multiplied every day by millions of people out there because there are millions of refugees. You look at the war in Ukraine, for example, where people are going hungry, cold, and everything. What I’m thinking in Canada might influence how you think in New York, but what about all this suffering that goes on? How is that affecting us?
I like the idea of bringing this all together because I’m still under the opinion that our medical system is so parsed into different pieces. At times, there are benefits to that.
I find more and more the way things are heading is that we need to bring concepts together rather than separate them. Even the fact that a well-respected psychiatrist is saying, “We need to pay attention to the body because the body is informing the mind,” makes people like me who work more in a body–centric practice happy, but there are principles that we should all embody as professionals.
Another one of the things that unfortunately has happened in this top-down system that we have bought into is what you have rightfully pointed out in terms of specialization. Cardiologists are only interested in the heart. Urologists are only interested in the kidneys and the bladder. None of them work together or talk to each other about things that are common to both of those diseases.
For example, atherosclerosis is when your arteries get plugged up by plaques made of cholesterol and all kinds of stuff. People who are specialists in blood diseases and atherosclerosis look at the plaques and tell you that if you start developing those plaques, you are likely to get coronary artery disease, thrombosis, or any of those things and how to cut down on your intake of this substance or that substance.
They don’t read the literature on that because it’s not coming to them from other doctors who study the same thing. They don’t realize that atherosclerosis is an inflammation of the whole system of arteries and that when you have that inflammation, as a result of that inflammation, there are signals sent to the brain, which tells the brain, “Down here, we have inflammation. You should be doing something about that.”
The brain sends out more signals to the body, which are trying to suppress the inflammation, but they increase it because they’re producing more stress hormones. You have more adrenaline and epinephrine. You have cortisone being produced. All of those substances increase the plaques in atherosclerosis. It’s crazy because we could do a lot more for those people if, for example, neurologists would talk to the people who specialize in the treatment of blood diseases or internists perhaps.
It’s the division between the brain and the body and the division between the different specialties. We have huge divisions in our society in terms of race, color, and religion. What we need is to bring everybody together as I’m trying to indicate with your help that we need to bring the brain and the body together. We need to fight a separation. This division in our society has flooded us also in medicine.We have huge divisions in our society in terms of race, color, and religion. This division in our society has flooded us also in medicine. What we need is to bring everybody together. We need to bring the brain and the body together. Click To Tweet
It certainly has. You mentioned war and things like that. I want to come back to that in a little while and talk about trauma. Before we do that, I want to talk about the idea of cellular intelligence in your book. You’ve already started to talk a little bit about it. There’s an absence of a brain. Supposedly, the brain is where memory is generated and stored. If that’s not working, the body or the cellular components of the body potentially have the ability to do that. Can you tell us how that works and why the idea of cellular intelligence is central to the book?
One of the things that people don’t realize is that regular cells we have in our bodies, whether it’s in our skin, hearts, or livers are not that different from neurons. Neurons developed from very primitive cells in unicellular organisms millions of years ago. When we look at any cell in the body, we see all the requirements for laying down memories as neurons have. Neurons are not the only cells that can lay down memories. Cells in our bodies are incredibly small, yet there is a huge space in these tiny cells.
There’s DNA, which contains the blueprint for everything in our bodies, like the blueprint for our body development. DNA contains millions of facts. Whether you want to call them facts or memories, it doesn’t matter. The fact is that cells are able to contain a great deal of material. For example, in cardiac cells, probably there is some research to show that they contain very important emotional information about the person so that when you get heart transplants, which is one of the chapters in my book, you find some interesting information.
You find that a number of people who have had heart transplants have also developed new personalities when it was checked out seem to correspond to the personality of the donor. For example, one woman was only interested in other women and would only eat vegetarian food. Not to her knowledge and unknown to her, she received the heart of a young man. She suddenly became heterosexual and started to eat hamburgers. There’s a real change in personality, which later was found to correspond with the personality of the donor.
Furthermore, she also complained of having this chest pain as if something was hitting her in the chest. Later it was found out that this young man died in a motorcycle accident when he was hit by a car. How is this possible unless there is cellular intelligence or cellular memory, which can be transferred? In my book, I quote a scientist from California by the name of Glassman, who has done transfers of cells from one animal to another and has shown that as a result of the transfer, the animal that received the donated cells was able to remember.
They ran mazes in a more successful way than other animals who were controlled. There are incredible experiments by Mike Levin from Tufts University in Massachusetts. I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing him. He is one of the smartest people honestly that I have ever met. This man is incredible. He has done experiments on planaria. He took planarians that were taught to run mazes. They were able to run them successfully. He chopped them up into tiny little parts and gave the parts to eat to the other planarians. The other planarians ate the parts.
He chopped up the parts, and then from the little parts grew new planarians. These new planarians, whether they were from the tail or the middle of the body, were almost as good at running mazes as the original planarians, but it only worked when they developed a brain. The brain was necessary but it wasn’t necessary for the memories to be there. There’s a lot of research that shows that cells can contain memories. If we can talk about artificial intelligence, I don’t see why we can’t talk about cellular intelligence.
It’s interesting to think about the expression of muscle memory from that.
You would know that embodied memory.
The heart is storing some emotional information. In sports, I always talk about muscle memory. For a long time, there’s the idea of most of our movements are subconscious. We’re not thinking about them. They’re probably not, in some ways, always hitting higher cortical areas. Is there some type of memory embedded in our muscle tissue or in our fascia, which is another highly debated topic in my profession?
My hairdresser told me a story about her mother who was very severely Alzheimer-ish and not able to talk or anything. One day, she took in a little doll for the mother. The mother picked up the doll and, naturally, as if it was a baby started moving with her and humming to her. That’s body memory right there. The brain wasn’t working, but something was working.
I would like to talk about the transgenerational transmission of trauma because there are a lot of talks now in social circles about it. The psychology world has been talking about it, but we’re all waking up to the idea that the traumas that we experience may not rest inside us. Potentially, they can be passed down in some way. Can you start to unpack what that means to us in the sense of embodiment in some of the cellular memory that we have been talking about? It extends trauma beyond being a psychological experience.
If we look at stress, which is universally acknowledged as being a factor in health, we know that when a person is under stress, they’re producing stress hormones. We know the effect of these stress hormones on our bodies. If you’re under stress, your immune system goes down. You’re more likely to develop inflammations and diseases. You develop code more easily and stuff like that. When you go back further in terms of epigenetics and transgenerational transmission of trauma, you look at, for example, mothers who are stressed, not only during pregnancy, which would be straightforward. That’s not transgenerational. That would be one generation.
When you look at future mothers before conception, and if they are stressed, that stress is going to affect their ovaries and the eggs or the ova in their ovaries. The same thing happens with fathers. The same thing happens with environmental toxins. There’s good research on fathers, for example, smoking before conception and how that affects the baby that will be the product of that conception.
In the past, it was thought that only genes are responsible for the blueprint, which then is responsible for everything that develops in you from the very first zygote. The meeting of the ovum and the sperm is called the zygote. From the first meeting of that, everything then is written in stone according to genetics because that is going to your blueprint, and that’s it. During the last 30 years, it has become very well established that genes are not your destiny and that genes are like a blueprint for your house.
Whether you select brown bricks or yellow bricks, it’s going to make a difference. It will still follow the blueprint, but it will be a different house. If you decide that you only want to have one story instead of two stories, then it will change. It’s the same thing that happens in terms of our genetic endowment. It is not written in stone. It can constantly change from moment to moment, which makes a lot of sense when you think of how we develop because it wouldn’t make sense in terms of human survival if we could not change in response to the environment. We have to do that. We are capable of that.
When we have stress or when the father is smoking before conception, then some of that is passed through his sperm to the new baby, but here’s what is also then even more interesting because that’s pretty straightforward. All these people who are under stress, whether it’s in Ukraine, Syria, Africa, or anywhere else, will all be suffering from this, In addition to that, there are psychological factors such as fear and anxiety, which will also affect cells. This information will be carried forward into the child and from the child into that child’s child. That’s how you have 2, 3, or 4 generations that are being affected by whatever happened in the first generation.
There are a lot of geneticists now working all over the world who are exploring this and showing the effects of the transgenerational transmission of trauma. In Lethbridge, Canada, there’s a wonderful geneticist. Her name is Gerlinde Metz. She has done an incredible amount of research on transgenerational trauma. In mice, she has shown that it carries on for four generations. A stressed mother mouse will create more stressed children.
In addition to that, to round out the answer here, you have hunger or lack of food that many of the refugees and the people who are starving in Ukraine are exposed to. There is a lack of proper food and then proper air. The air is full of nitrous oxide, sulfites, and all these other things. All of those things will have an effect on the sperm and the ova of the people involved, which then will be passed on to future generations. There’s simply no doubt about that. In this world, we are creating more people who are unhealthy in some ways.
One of the things that we need to realize is, for example, a mother is pregnant, she’s under a lot of stress, and she’s producing too many stress hormones, that will affect the wiring of the brain of that child. Honestly, it’s so simple to visualize and realize that the poor child is already going to be born with a miswired brain as your computer could be miswired. It will never be as good as it was originally intended to be. We are creating children all over the world who will not be at their best. That’s going to create more problems for this world.We are creating more people who are unhealthy in some ways. We are creating children all over the world who will not be at their best. That's going to create more problems for this world. Click To Tweet
Some people don’t like to rely on mouse studies, but there are certain instances where they give us some good information for us to think about as clinicians and human beings. If there’s research that trauma can be transmitted over 3 to 5 generations, do we have any information either from human studies or animal studies that show that when we embed humans and communities in the healing environment, how fast that epigenetic environment could change our genes and phenotypes?
I’m glad you asked that so that we don’t end on a negative note here. That’s the positive. That’s the good side of epigenetics. It can go both ways. It can be destructive and constructive. It has been shown, for example, that loving and caring parents can repair a lot of the damage that was done to the child in utero or perhaps even at birth because some births are traumatic.
Cesarean births, protracted births, having the cord around your neck, and things of that nature can be very traumatic. Loving and kind attention can repair a lot of the damage. That’s important. Loving and caring human contact is incredibly important and beneficial and can counter a lot of the trauma and damage. They say, “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.” I would say, “A hug a day keeps the trauma away.”
We can’t underestimate the impact of human co-regulation to help someone overcome what they‘re experiencing.
You put it beautifully.
I appreciate the perspective of your book. It somewhat looks at our disconnected and disembodied health system and says, “It’s time to connect all these parts and look at our entire universe as one embodied experience, especially within a human to human.”
Everything is connected.
As I read through the book, I’m like, “This is a much broader perspective than you will get in any medical training.” I have friends that are physicians. They specialize in things. I went through medical training myself more specialized in that sense, but this is a broader perspective. Once again, I want to point people to the book. It’s called The Embodied Mind: Understanding the Mysteries of Cellular Memory, Consciousness, and Our Bodies. You can find that wherever books are sold, Amazon, and other book dealers. Dr. Verny, it has been great speaking with you. Can you let everyone know how they can learn more about you and follow your work?
Thank you very much for asking. I have my website, TRVernyMD.com. That’s my website. I also have blogs on Psychology Today. I have a weekly podcast called Pushing Boundaries with Dr. Thomas R. Verny. All of those places are where you can find me.
Make sure to check out his website at TRVernyMD.com and make sure to check out The Embodied Mind. It’s a pleasure being here with you.
Thank you very much. I enjoyed meeting you.
- Dr. Thomas R. Verny
- The Embodied Mind: Understanding the Mysteries of Cellular Memory, Consciousness, and Our Bodies
- The Interpretation of Dreams
- The Secret Life of the Unborn Child
- Pushing Boundaries with Dr. Thomas R. Verny – Apple Podcasts
About Thomas R. Verny, MD
Dr. Thomas R. Verny was born in Bratislava and emigrated to Canada in 1952. He is a psychiatrist, poet, podcaster and the author of eight of books and 47 scientific papers, including The Secret Life of the Unborn Child, published in 27 countries. He is the Founding President of APPPAH and Founding Editor of the Journal of Pre and Perinatal Psychology. Thomas lives with his wife in Stratford, ON, Canada. His favorite hobby is playing chess.