I try to make a general rule of sitting in the position that, in the grand scheme of things, we know nothing. Every theory about our existence, the world we inhabit, our physical bodies, gravity, matter, even the often scoffed at possibility of a soul, is exactly that – a theory. A best working understanding, until some new information comes to light. And, going by what history has taught us, it always does. All of our best working guesses are based on the most functional logic we can muster.
So today, I would like to propose a new theory: is the endocannabinoid system where consciousness resides?
There will be many scientists out there rolling their eyes at the suggestion of spirituality and quantum mechanics being entangled, let alone assigning locality to something as impossible to explain as consciousness. But an ever-growing number of researchers are gradually coming to the conclusion that the two might be inextricably intertwined. After all, why shouldn’t they be?
Before we go any further, let’s just shift ourselves into understanding what consciousness is. Look away from the screen, draw back from those busy thoughts distracting your ability to be present, and take a moment to notice the experience of looking at the world around you from the inside.
Here’s a question: how did you just do that? What was it that was able to perceive your surroundings from anything other than just your body going through the motions? There it is. You. Your awareness. Your consciousness. It certainly feels as though it’s contained in the body, somewhere. But, despite ancient mythology suggesting the pineal gland has some involvement (which incidentally, may have its own endocannabinoid system) and an understanding that the most recently evolved part of the brain – the cerebral cortex – contains our more ‘human’ personality traits of humour, a sense of moral ethics, and the ability (even a desire) to plan for the future, we’ve not found any material evidence of consciousness. Given that even the smallest atom can be broken down until it lacks shape and solidity altogether, there is no physical matter in our universe at all – only information – so why would we?
However, despite not being able to see it, there’s certainly the argument that we can feel it – and this is what poses the conundrum no scientist or philosopher has ever been able to figure out. So at this point, science and spirituality must collide to gain a deeper understanding of the greatest unknown.
This was demonstrated in a mind-boggling way when a study published in the May 2000 issue of the journal NeuroReport showed that a group of Tibetan monks had used a form of meditative yoga called Tum-mo to control their body to an incomprehensible extent – raising temperature by up to 17 degrees and decreasing metabolism by 64%. Does this suggest that becoming aware of this internal perception, of consciousness, and the fact that “protons, atoms, molecules, cells and stars” is ultimately ‘baggage’ (as described by physicist Max Tegmark in his 2014 book, Our Mathematical Universe) could give us the ability to control potentially any aspect of our physical being? And if so, is there a mechanism through which we can do this? Which, finally, brings me to the endocannabinoid system.
The ECS is a very unusual part of the body and the idea of it being the physical housing of consciousness came to me when thinking of a way to describe what’s happening in the body when the ECS is activated. The receptors are on cells, to read the conditions outside the cell and pass on what’s happening into the cell, so it can respond accordingly. Almost like the ECS is a conscious entity in and of itself. And it’s not just the human body we’re talking about either, as all animals, vertebrates, invertebrates and even very primitive animals such as sea-squirts (which evolved over 600 million years ago) have an ECS.
Its receptors are found all over the place, in our brain, our heart, right the way down to our mitochondrial cell walls. And, in its role as our homeostatic regulator, it oversees and manages all inner workings of our physical being – from temperature, to metabolism, stress response, the sleep-wake cycle, appetite, mood and more. Hence the link to those Tibetan monks.
We know that spiritual practices, such as meditation and yoga, can stimulate the ECS in a remarkable way, as demonstrated on one advanced 4-day meditation retreat which showed a significant rise in endocannabinoids in all participants during the course. And we know that ECS activation, through the use of sacred plants like cannabis, has been used in religious ritual for thousands of years in an attempt to reach higher states of consciousness. Now, there’s even the suggestion that the ECS may be a primary mediator and regulatory factor of acupuncture’s beneficial effects, making it part of one of the world’s most ancient forms of healing used to assess and treat the condition of the spirit manifesting in the patient.
A reincarnated version of the theory claiming the existence of aether, and its relationship with relativity suggests, maybe, just maybe, we – and the universe that surrounds us – are all one thing. And a paper from the Quantum Gravity Research institute proposes there may even be an underlying panconsciousness, meaning that we live in a universe that is nothing but thought – perhaps one grand thought from a conscious universe itself, or all of our individual thoughts coming together to form a whole.
The universe seems to be nothing but an exchange of information, suggesting there is no separation between us, except for the illusion of matter we create, including the physical body we walk around in during our brief time on this earth. So if there is something – a soul, or a consciousness, that continues after physical death, it makes sense that this could take on some sort of physical manifestation too – or at the very least play a role in the operation of our physical selves. And I believe the endocannabinoid system may well fit that description.
Of course, it’s all speculation for now. But then again, isn’t everything?