Candace Pert – ‘When We Are Playing, We Are Stretching Our Emotional Expressive Ranges…’

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“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.” ― Candace Pert

A few weeks ago, I was editing an article on video games and consciousness. One of the quotes used by the writer was from Candace Pert: “When we are playing [games], we are stretching our emotional expressive ranges, loosening up our biochemical flow of information, getting unstuck, and healing our feelings.”  I was intrigued by the word, “unstuck,” and how I’ve used this word to describe my physical and emotional state equally. There has never truly been a time when I didn’t recognize my mind/body connection. When I fail to exercise, I feel depressed, when I feel depressed, it’s harder for me to move, or want to get out of my pajamas, or motivate to do anything for that matter (which, apparently, has a biological explanation in “sick behavior” – who knew?)

So, off I went on my Google safari, casually scissoring through articles and Wikipedia definitions, terms, and references (so unfortunately and painfully left unedited in scientific jargon that access to the AWESOME information is limited).  I got to her website, where I discovered that on September 12, 2013 she suddenly passed away. My jaw dropped. I was looking forward to possibly chatting with this woman, who in 1985, helped discover endorphins and the inextricable link between the immune system and the endocrine system. A woman who didn’t curtail her questioning of the world around her, but pushed boundaries and asked specialists in immunology, neurology and psychology to talk with each other.

Pert and her lab-mates’ discovery revealed that the surface of cells are equipped with neuropeptide-specific receptors, and these in turn act as little messengers that let the body, mind, glands, neurons, and immune cells share information. Built on the footprints of others including Robert Ader and Nicholas Cohen, this discovery unleashed an exciting and open forum for exploration, poking and prodding. Not just within the psychoneuroimmunology (PNI) crossbred worlds, but all over science and medicine.

Constantly communicating fresh findings, Pert has written well over 250 articles on PNI and the interconnectivity of the mind and brain. Her most famous book, Molecules of Emotion, more fully describes how the emotion-modulating peptides are the cause for physical reactions to fear, embarrassment, and stress. Where the overriding thought was that the brain communicated to the body through networks of electrical pulses, Pert illustrates that form of communication as only one method, and indeed, the lesser one to molecules of emotion. She calls our brain a “bag of hormones” and our physical body our subconscious, where every cell, muscle, nerve, and system holds within it certain memories and mapped reactions to particular stimuli.

This is all intensely fascinating when you consider the challenges of patient engagement, and why innovators of games for health have sought her expertise to validate their work by showing a link between interacting with a game and faster physical healing, as has been the case with Re-Mission2, a cancer-fighting video game for children and adolescents suffering from the disease.

But what I’ve been floored by in my journey through Candace Pert’s world, has been uncovering her evolution as a scientist, and her courage to enter entirely dismissed areas of research – like New Age meditation – while at the same time deepening her “hard science” appreciation and knowledge. Her questioning without prejudice is precisely the spirit a scientist, clinician, entrepreneur, or thought leader should embrace. At her memorial on October 27th, her life and life’s work should not be celebrated with punctuation; rather, as an immortal conversation composed of exciting discoveries and passionate questions that will drive future innovators, thought leaders, clinicians and scientists along lesser known paths.

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Susan E. Williams (@estherswilliams) explores experiments at the intersection of health care and technology, particularly around how mobile apps, games and sensory apparatus change the way we pay attention, understand, and make decisions about our bodies, emotions, and behavior. Susan received her BA in cultural anthropology from Columbia University and her MA in East Asian Culture, with an emphasis on Japan, from New York University. She is on the board of Health 2.0 Seattle, and works (and believes) in social media communications for health care and science.