Einstein's Brain and the Question of Consciousness in Defying Depression

My friend remarked on how he'd had the top medical care and had taken almost 10,000 pills in the eight years between the doctor's diagnosis and its reversal. Yet that time was still filled with such mental and physical lows that he frequently felt suicidal.

"Einstein's Brain Arrives in London After Odd Journey", read the intriguing headline.

Which could prompt one to ask: "What kind of journey would it be normal for a brain to take without its owner?"

The answer that comes to mind is: "None!"

Or should that read that the answer coming to the brain is "None"?

As the source of Einstein's genius makes the news once again, for the hundreds of millions of people suffering mental illness around the world the question of where thought come from is an important one.

For a long time the assumption the brain is our "thinker" enjoyed near-monopoly status in scientific circles. But that began to change in the the last decade, according to former Oxford and UCSD Professor Joseph Goguen.

"In the early 1990s, most scientists considered consciousness taboo, but by the early 2000s many considered it the most important unsolved problem in science".

An example of this is Australian scientist David Chalmers - now a Professor of Philosophy. Emerging in the mid-1990s as a champion of the need for science to take consciousness seriously, he said: "Even when I was studying mathematics, physics, and computer science, it always seemed that the problem of consciousness was about the most interesting problem out there for science to come to grips with".

In a video called The Conscious Mind (also the name of his 1996 book) Chalmers asks: "How does the water of the brain turn into the wine of consciousness?....How is it that all of this matter adds up to something as complex, as interesting and as unique as consciousness?"

Clearly that is a question without an easy scientific solution. In 2006 evolutionary biologist and best-selling author Richard Dawkins was asked "What is the one question you most want to see answered?" He replied, "How does subjective consciousness work? How does it evolve?"

The impact of thought is being actively explored around the world. A study on the role expectation plays in the effectiveness of drugs and one on the effect of patient belief on the course of recuperation illustrate the ways in which consciousness can be influential in health outcomes.

And while many exploring the impact of placebos are trying to pin down a physiological explanation for the effectiveness of "pills" and other treatments which include no remedial properties, might the results in fact be pointing in the opposite direction?

Could they be indicating a mental basis for the impact of all drugs? Might they even be meek prophets of an evolving medicine of the future, one in which consciousness itself becomes the primary healing agent?

The wheels of scientific research necessarily turn slowly. It can take a long time to glimpse a new paradigm emerging, even longer to find the funding to properly investigate it and longer still to address the subject systematically and thoroughly.

In the meantime, many people with mental health problems like depression find their needs are not being met by conventional means. Or they might be feeling impatient with medical management of symptoms rather than release from them. Consequently they are open to exploring the role complementary and alternative medicine might play in helping to solve the struggles in their lives. Others take that a step further and are looking into the potential health benefits of uncovering a spiritual nature underlying the mind-body connection.

That was the journey my friend went on when he had suffered from clinical depression for years.

Sitting in a West London cafe recently, he related how an understanding of his innate spirituality finally enabled him to break free of the disease.

The change took place over many months during which he transitioned from taking a slew of drugs prescribed to help him cope with the problem to finding an understanding of God which liberated him from it. A key moment came when he heard a Bible passage read aloud that says: "For in him we live, and move, and have our being".

These words of the Apostle Paul inspired him with a "sudden realization" that "God was present with me, that divine Love was present with me, that my life was actually in God, Life, Love. And it was as though at that same moment all the chains of bondage and despair just completely fell away from me".

Initially the feeling of freedom was just for that moment. But it was a precursor of things to come. His full freedom came some months later when a period of reversal and discouragement gave way to many more moments of spiritual consciousness. That led to a complete recovery that has stood the test of time.

Looking back, my friend remarked on how he'd had the top medical care and had taken almost 10,000 pills in the eight years between the doctor's diagnosis and its reversal. Yet that time was still filled with such mental and physical lows that he frequently felt suicidal.

In the decades since he has led a productive and happy life without taking a single drug. He has raised a family of four and enjoyed a successful business career that has taken him around the globe, despite having missed out on his college education due to the depression.

The theme of last month's World Mental Health Day was "Depression: A Global Crisis". In the lives of those who suffer from such mental illness - and for their loved ones - the disease is very much a personal crisis, as it was for my friend. Could his experience, and similar accounts of Christian healing, have something to offer in the search for what consciousness is, where it resides and why that matters?

Perhaps. What my friend did was to apply ideas road-tested by Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy and articulated in her key text, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures. This book reasons that the source of all enduring consciousness is the spiritual goodness of God. And it explains the benefits of progressively expressing the qualities derived from that divine goodness in one's own life. It concludes that "Consciousness constructs a better body when faith in matter is conquered" and it ends with a 100 pages of accounts by individuals who felt they had experienced that.

Step by step, material scientists have also been prodding at the first part of this metaphysical equation, demonstrating that qualities of thought like forgiveness, humour and love have a positive impact on bodily well-being.

But if faith in matter is a barrier to the kind of thinking which heals, could that suggest why a solely material search for consciousness keeps coming up short?

It was surely such "faith in matter" that prompted Dr Thomas Harvey to allegedly defy Einstein's wishes to have his ashes discretely scattered following a cremation. Instead the doctor kept the celebrity brain in the hope of "looking for physical proof for why Einstein was so smart".

He never managed to do that. Nor was it the reason the eminent scientist's brain traveled on that trip to London for an appearance at the Wellcome Collection, according to Dr. Marius Kwint, the guest curator of the exhibit hosting the famous organ. Called "The Mind as Matter" , the exhibition's purpose was to prompt "consideration of whether humans are much, much more than the product of what the physical brain is capable of producing".

Einstein's own words, in a letter to a grieving father, suggest a similar sentiment.

He wrote: "A human being is part of the whole called by us 'Universe', a part limited in time and space. We experience ourselves, our thoughts and feelings as something separate from the rest. A kind of optical delusion of consciousness".

He added: "Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty".

Einstein's words do not state that breaking free from that imprisoning delusion would bring freedom from disease. Yet many, like me, would claim to have experienced such improvements in both physical and mental health through the kind of change of consciousness his words describe.

The great scientist did, however, admire the healer Jesus, listing him among "the proclaimers of high moral standards and values" whom he described as being above "the discoverers of objective truth".

"What humanity owes to personalities like Buddha, Moses and Jesus ranks for me higher than all the achievements of the inquiring constructive mind", Einstein wrote in 1937.

Jesus himself notably said: "You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free".

By pinpointing "truth" was he referring to a series of ever-improving scientific models regarded as being of greater consequence than the contemplation of timeless realities? Was he referring to a theological search for truth beyond the scope of modern scientific inquiry?

Or did his words and healings explain and illustrate the truth of an eternal, spiritual consciousness - a divine Mind - that can resolve the sincere inquiries of both science and theology and perhaps even prove medicinal to those struggling with mental health issues?

As Einstein himself once put it, "I want to know [God's] thoughts. The rest are details".

* All Einstein citations are verified in The Ultimate Quotable Einstein, by Alice Calaprice.