Krista Tippett interviews neurosurgeon James Doty on the intersection of physiology, compassion, heroism, and courage. Doty is on the cutting edge of our knowledge of the brain and the heart: how they talk to each other; what compassion means in the body and in action; and how we can reshape our lives and perhaps our species through the scientific and human understanding we are now gaining.
September 30, 2010
Using stem cells, Doris Taylor brought the heart of a dead animal back to life and might one day revolutionize human organ transplantation. She takes us beyond lightning rod issues and into an unfolding frontier where science is learning how stem cells work reparatively in every body at every age.
Buried in this marvelous interview is the following conversation:
Dr. Taylor: Finally, our knowledge has caught up with — or is catching up with biology. We don’t understand it all yet. We don’t understand what makes them decrease but we know we can begin to move people backwards. And can I tell you some cool stuff? We believe that things that decrease stress actually increase the number of stem cells that you have in your body and in your blood. And we know that men and women have different numbers and different kinds of stem cells. And so for the first time, we think we can begin to understand why it is that men develop heart disease earlier than women — because they lose their stem cells faster.
So wouldn’t it be fabulous if we could say, “Wait a minute. We can move you backwards on that continuum of disease.” And I think that’s the future. The future is really using nature’s tools to promote our body’s ability to heal itself, whether we do that with traditional medical approaches, giving you cells, giving you molecules that increase the number of stem cells in a controlled way, or whether it’s about teaching you tools that let your body do that.
Ms. Tippett: Right.
Dr. Taylor: Meditation, whatever.
Ms. Tippett: Yeah. And in that context — so here’s a paradox that strikes me in your work when I read a description of your laboratory where you have a number of hearts beating, right? So there’s something about this idea of disembodied hearts that then starts to make me worry about then how we define what we are.
Dr. Taylor: Absolutely.
Ms. Tippett: Right? But then the irony is that one of the things you’re discovering is that one of the ways our whole organism has to increase this capacity, this efficiency of stem cells, are through what I call these spiritual technologies like meditation. So, in fact, you take the things apart and then see how they fit together again.
Dr. Taylor: You know, it’s interesting because when we were first doing the guys in the lab would sleep in the lab to check on these hearts every half-hour or hour and a half. And when one of my folks who’s in my lab now came into the lab and was learning this process, Thomas — who was in the lab before — said, “You’ve just got to love it enough to keep it going.”
Ms. Tippett: Was he talking about the hearts?
Dr. Taylor: He was talking about the hearts …
Ms. Tippett: Right.
Dr. Taylor: … that we were growing in a dish. And, you know, we joke about that but at the same time, I think part of what we’re doing is learning about regenerating heart at a lot of different levels. And I think as we learn more about transplanting these hearts, what makes what we’re doing a little bit different than what exists out there already is we would — if we wanted to build you a heart, we would take a cadaver scaffold from a pig or from a human that couldn’t otherwise be used as a transplant. But we would take your stem cells, and we would use your cells to grow that heart. So it’s really about putting your body’s ability to heal you back in place.
Ms. Tippett: And then the way I understand it is you also see part of what you would want me to learn in terms of nurturing …
Dr. Taylor: Right.
Ms. Tippett: … that repair forward would also — there would also be a spiritual component to that.
Dr. Taylor: I mean, I personally have to believe that there’s a spiritual component to all of this. What we think impacts who we are. We know that. We know that, whether it’s what we think makes us grumpy or what we think makes us happy. And we’re learning that those have an impact on our physical body. Stress ages your stem cells. There’s science out there from some of the best laboratories in the world showing that the way a cell knows how old it is, is it has a little piece of DNA, chromosome, right? On the end of that chromosome is a little piece of DNA called a telomere. And every time your cell divides, that gets shorter. And when it reaches a certain point, it says, “Oops. I’m old. Time to die.” Well, stress makes that piece of DNA get shorter. So stress literally ages your stem cells. If you believe that’s true, and it is, it also ought to be possible to reverse stress and make your cells younger.
I especially appreciate Mouw’s invitation to see other people as an exercise in art appreciation.
Ms. Tippett: So here’s another statement from you about just an essential Christian truth, which is, “In affirming the stranger, we are honoring the image of God.”
Mr. Mouw: Yeah, yeah. That’s right. I mean, going back to that Aristotle idea that, you know, we all understand kinship and then we understand friendship, but then there’s this person who is neither kin nor friend, but we have encountered them. And what is it that links me to them if it isn’t just a lot of good feelings that I have about people like that? What the Bible teaches is that every human being is created in a divine image. And this means that every human being is — you know, this is where I’ve been thinking more about this lately — is a work of art.
Seeing other people is a kind of exercise in art appreciation. I find that very powerful. I come across a person who isn’t just a stranger, but maybe represents a strangeness to me that initially I might feel very alienated from that person, and then to think this is a work of art by the God whom I worship, that God created that person. And it doesn’t come easy. I’m kind of aesthetically deprived, so I have to work at it, but it’s a very important exercise to engage in.
October 14, 2010
Richard Mouw challenges his fellow conservative Christians to civility in public discourse. He offers historical as well as spiritual perspective on American Evangelicals’ navigation of disagreement, fear, and truth.
A Yale study identified “six Americas” when it comes to climate change. Where are you on the spectrum?
I am grateful to Dave Graybeal, Drew Theological Seminary professor, for introducing me to Bill’s book, The End of Nature. He still writes with great passion about the gift of the earth upon which we live.
We delve into the world and meaning of the Jewish High Holy Days — ten days that span the new year of Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur’s rituals of atonement. A young rabbi in L.A. is one voice in a Jewish spiritual renaissance that is taking many forms across the U.S. The vast majority of her congregation are people in their 20s and 30s, who, she says, are making life-giving connections between ritual, personal transformation, and relevance in the world.