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Spirituality and Biology

Spirituality is the sense that one is somehow greater than the sum of one's parts. What makes those parts and enables them to be greater is biological and can be explained on the basis of receptors, synapses, and neurons. But it becomes extra-biological in the sense that we create it. . . . Every thought we have is the result of enormous input from many places that is fed back and processed through neuronal circuits. It seems immediate because the speed is so fast, but in fact it is a synthesis of many things, some of which are emotional--not only emotions coming up through the limbic system, but also emotional memories. Memories of emotions are stored in the amygdala. . . . The ability to store memories and to synthesize all these synaptic impulses and bring them together and to make sense out of our memories is what is unique to the human spirit.

--Sherwin B. Nuland, clinical professor of surgery at the Yale University School of Medicine, speaking as part of the conference Perspectives on Health and Healing: Can Science and Religion Work Together? on April 12, 2003



The Executive Excedrin

In the mid 1950s, scientists at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research conducted what became known as the "executive monkey" experiment. Researchers placed two monkeys at opposites sides of the same cage and administered electric shocks to their feet every twenty seconds. The monkey on the left, the so-called "executive monkey," could shield both monkeys from the shock if he pressed the lever on his side every twenty seconds. That responsibility on the poor little monkey put a lot of stress on him, and researchers were unsurprised to discover in test after test that it was the monkey with the added responsibility of shielding the team from pain who became demonstrably agitated and died first.
When the executive monkey was tranquilized, however, he did his job of protecting the two monkeys much better. And the logic was, what worked for executive monkeys presumably worked for executive men. The use of tranquilizers among businessmen was so widespread in the 1950s that Milltown got the nickname of "Executive Excedrin." In 1957 a nationwide survey on tranquilizer use among executives found that one-third of all respondents used them, and half of those were habitual users.

--Andrea Tone, professor of history and director of graduate studies in the School of History, Technology, and Society at the Georgia Institute of Technology, speaking on "The Gendered Mind: Women, Men, and the Rise of Tranquilizers in Modern Medicine" on May 18, 2003