Famine and the Creation of Reality by the Brain
During the winter of 1944-1945, a great famine struck parts of Holland that were under German occupation. In September 1944, the Allies had launched Operation Market Garden, a daring attack on German forces in Holland and Germany. Because of initial success and in order to frustrate Nazi retaliation, the Dutch underground urged Dutch railway workers to strike and shut down the trains. However, Operation Market Garden soon stalled and to bypass the railway strike, the Nazis commandeered all means of transport. They also blocked access to Holland from the west, shutting off the food supply. As Holland entered one of the coldest winters on record, the Hongerwinter as it was called, nutrition was reduced to below 500 calories for each person per day. Famine was widespread; people ate tulip bulbs to survive! And by spring 1945, 30,000 Dutch had died of starvation.
Nutrition returned to normal quickly after the end of the War. But even so, it was soon apparent that the effects of the famine continued and that in particular, children born to malnourished mothers were suffering an especially terrible and completely unexpected impact, even when food was plentiful. As these Hunger Winter offspring grew into adulthood, they were beset by problems of brain malfunction, including depression and schizophrenia, plus heart disease and obesity. It seemed that the stress of famine had caused profound and lasting alterations in their growth and the ability of their brains to function normally, even when their bodies were nourished normally.
Searching for a cause, researchers at the University of Leiden examined the DNA of the offspring for changes that could explain the persisting effects of the famine. The assays revealed striking alterations in methyl groups, chemical marks added to the DNA that modify gene expression without actually changing the genetic sequences. These are called epigenetic changes because the gene expression changes without alteration of DNA sequences. Some DNA regions gained methyl marks, suppressing the expression of the neighboring genes, but the majority of changes were loss of methyl marks that released gene expression. People whose mothers were malnourished in the first trimester of pregnancy were most afflicted and scientists speculated that absence of the nutrients needed to affix the methyl marks to the embryos’ DNA from the mothers’ diets caused the deficiencies in the marks. Looking further, the researchers found that the methyl marks of the igf2 gene, a gene that encodes the growth stimulating protein, insulin-like growth factor-2, were missing, apparently releasing IGF2 expression. It seemed that the harsh experience of the fetus as it developed within a mother stricken by famine, predicted birth into a dire world, and the fetus used epigenetic mechanisms to prepare itself for a lifetime fraught by famine. The reaction to trauma was so strong that the developing brains “thought” that the trauma would continue as the norm of life. Thus, the developing brains created their own reality out of a chaotic world, in this case a world of famine. They imposed a form on the world that gave shape to the chaos, chaos, which on its own had no meaning.
To give shape and stability to an ever-changing world, the brain creates its own reality and the world created in response to the Hongerwinter is a particularly grim example. But there are other examples of creation of reality by the brain that are more commonplace and constructive, such as the creation of the color of a leaf, or the sound of a closing door, or the taste of an olive.
Another brain creation that is quite striking and known to all of us is the appearance of motion of objects or images that in fact are perfectly stationary. One example is the blinking lights of an electronic sign. With the electronic sign, as the lights that neighbor one another in a row flash, they remain absolutely in the same spot. Yet you do not see a row of stationary lights, side by side, individually blinking. You see motion of lights that form words that appear to traverse a building wall. For the brain, there is no such thing as the one particular moment when one light is on and the other off. The brain makes a synthesis of this moment plus the next moment and this gives rise to the appearance of moving words, a kind of Jamesian flow of consciousness and a new reality. The same occurs when we watch the projection of the individual images of a motion picture film. If the frames were projected slowly, one by one, we would perceive each as a still photo. But when projected at least at 24 frames per second, the brain creates a convincing appearance of motion, again a new reality.
The brain’s Hunger Winter response was a tragic error of biology. After the war, when nutrition returned to normal, the epigenetic changes were not actually required, but once programmed into DNA, they created maladaptive changes in brain function as well as obesity and heart disease. The brain altered itself in response to the great stress of the Hunger Winter, even after the stress no longer existed. So the brain over-compensated, predicting that this will be the norm of the future, but instead leading to schizophrenia, depression and obesity, the reactions to starvation.
Despite its erring reaction to the Hunger Winter, as the brain creates reality, more often than not it gets things right. By creating the appearance of motion, or color, or touch, or pain or the craving for a food, the brain gives rise to something that is not there, per se, but nonetheless, the creation of this reality enables the organism to deal better with its environment. The power of the reality created by the brain has to do with prediction. The organism must be able to anticipate and even predict what will happen from moment to moment within the individual’s chaotic world environment.
Thus this creation of reality takes place during the progression of time. Everything is represented in terms of the moment before and the moment after. The brain constantly synthesizes one moment into the next and thereby it is creating a multi-dimensionality that provides an understanding of the environment and allows us to move around without bumping into things.