Paul G. Joseph, MS
University of Massachusetts, Lowell, United States
Photography by David Bruce
More and more, science tells us who we are, and what we achieve are largely the result of accidents of birth and early life experience. In 1875, in northeast India at its border with Nepal, in the foothills of the Himalayas, was born Edward James Corbett. He was the eighth child of Mary Jane and Christopher Corbett. A second marriage for both, Jim (as he was called) was Mary Jane’s 11th child, and Christopher's 12th. Both parents had direct experience of the War of 1857—Mary Jane had lost her first husband, a medical doctor, who was dragged from his horse and hacked to death, after he had first killed two mutineers. Rebels had captured Jim’s uncle Bartholomew during the Siege of Delhi, tied to him to a stake, and burned him to death. Christopher Corbett was in the army and saw active service in the Afghan wars, Sikh wars and the War of 1857, after which he quit the army and became a postmaster in a town called Mussoorie, in the foothills of the Himalayas. Here he met and married Mary Jane.
Jim Corbett’s treatment in early life was, to say the least, less than ideal. He was a member of a large group of 14 boys and girls of various ages mostly free of any adult supervision. In this group, Jim, as the youngest boy, had a lowly status. We glean this from the girls using him as their "lookout" when they had daily baths at the irrigation inlet at the end of the Corbett's garden, clad in their nightdresses which, as Jim recalled later: "... had the habit of floating away." This may not be as innocent as it sounds: when he died at almost 80, indications are that Jim was still a virgin, seemingly unable to reconcile viewing a woman sexually with simultaneously being “honorable.”
Jim spent his free time in the Himalayan jungles, in the company of native Indian trackers. Neither Jim nor his parents had ever been to England, and consequently, considered a lower status than those British who came directly from "home." These latter had no problem snubbing or otherwise making sure that the "native British" knew their place. When Jim was six, his father died, leaving his mother with nine children and very little money. She for her part had a few investments in land and houses and managed to scrape a living from the rents. This earned the family a doubly low status—they were "boxwallahs"—a term used derogatorily for those British who made money by renting houses to other British.
Triply outcast, it seemed unlikely that Jim would become who he did, but it very soon became clear that he had a talent—even at the age of eight, he could shoot anything in sight with unparalleled accuracy. In 1885, when he was 10, he was pulled out in front of the rest of his school and asked to demonstrate to a visiting officer his ability to shoot. Shocked, he blindly picked a rifle from a pile of guns, but nervous, missed the first shot whose target was a small tin at 200 yards. The visiting officer, sensing Jim’s fear, gently took the rifle from the boy, calibrated it (which in his nervousness Jim had forgotten to do), and gave it back. The next four shots all hit the target. The visiting officer was none other than Earl Roberts who went on to be a famous hero and Field-Marshall.
Given the family's relative impoverishment, Jim left school at seventeen to join the Indian railway as a fuel inspector. It was this experience that first made him aware of the massive deforestation taking place to provide fuel to the Indian Railways. During his spare time, Jim would hunt, living for days at a time in the densest jungle, sleeping for safety above the jungle floor, wedged in some convenient tree. Without realizing it, all this experience was preparing him to be a world famous hunter, who at the same time was as humble as humble can be. In his twenties, as knowledge of his hunting skills traveled, the Indian Government would begin to ask him to put down man-eating tigers no one else had been able to kill. And this, he was repeatedly able to do.
It was only when he was near 70 that Jim put down some of his experiences in a book. His writing style was simple and direct; readers get an unfiltered sense of being immediately present at the action. With a little editing help from the brothers of a local monastery, his book "Man-Eaters of Kumaon" became an instant bestseller, making Jim world famous overnight. His subsequent books were as exciting, earning Jim a devoted following around the world. As early as 1920, Jim put down his rifle for a camera. In the 1930’s he established India’s first bird sanctuary. He would henceforth only kill if the animal was actively endangering humans, and never for sport. Independent India named its first national park after him—the Jim Corbett National Park.
Man-eating tigers have always been a threat in this part of India. Jim wrote that a very common cause for a tiger becoming a man-eater was its love for porcupine flesh. He describes a typical case: the Muktesar man-eating tigress: "... a comparatively young animal, in an encounter with a porcupine lost an eye and got some fifty quills, varying in length from one to nine inches, embedded in the arm and under the pad of her right foreleg. Several of these quills after sticking a bone had doubled back in the form of a U, the point and the broken-off end, being quite close together. Suppurating sores formed where she endeavored to extract the quills with her teeth.” Unable to hunt normal prey, she turned to eating humans.
Sometimes the man-eater, having lost its fear of humans, hunts in daytime, creating a reign of terror: whole villages shutdown with people locked into their houses for days, scurrying out only for bare necessities. Jim recalled sitting one moonlit night on the single road through a village, waiting for the man-eater to come by as it did each night; he shivered with terror, even though by then he was an expert at killing man-eaters and had two trusty rifles at his side. With good reason: the Champawat man-eater had a tally of 465 humans eaten, before Jim shot it dead. It seems as with Jim, so also with the man-eaters—accidents of birth and life largely made them what they were.
Photography by Jess Hamilton
Many people live in these Himalayan foothills, in villages, journeying along well-traveled paths through the jungle to cultivate small fields or gather firewood. But about 2500 years ago, a truly exceptional human wandered through these same jungles—Gautama Siddhartha. Today we know him as “The Buddha.”
His story is well known—son of a minor king, brought up in luxury and constantly conveyed the message that he was "special, destined to be a hero,” then suddenly encountering suffering and subsequently, leaving it all behind to find out the meaning of life. Initially he studied under the best sages available, but on joining their ashrams and mastering their techniques, remained unsatisfied. He had heard tell of a particular mystical state that some had previously achieved and knew he himself had not reached that stage. No one knew how to attain this state, but all felt it involved breathing, fasting, and isolation. Given his supreme confidence in himself, Gautama plunged into the jungle, with the aim of fasting and isolating himself, until he reached this elusive, supreme, mystical state.
Gautama recalls that his first months in the jungle were among the worst times of his life. The darkness, the sounds, the fear of tigers, scorpions, snakes, and the ever-present mosquitoes made for a nightmarish experience. However, his self-confidence carried him through. First, he tried various types of breathing techniques, but none seemed to be effective. Then he tried fasting. Gradually, he reduced his food intake until finally, he was consuming only a handful of vegetable soup each day (a cup of vegetable stock has approximately twenty-five calories).
Extant writings indicate that Gautama spent about four years pursuing this approach, reaching a state of extreme emaciation with the classic signs of starvation: loss of substantial adipose tissue and muscle mass, vitamin deficiency, diarrhea, stomach atrophy, scalp cracking, itching, and hair loss. Yet, despite the extreme fasting and meditation, he did not attain his goal. One day he waded into a nearby river to wet his itching skin, but found to his horror he was too weak to climb out. Realizing that he was near death but with his goal yet unattained, Gautama reports that if he survived, he would give up fasting. Somehow, he struggled out of the river, then lay exhausted on the bank. At this time, a young woman passed by, and struck by his pathetic condition, compassionately offered him a bowl of the "rice pudding” she was carrying. Directly after eating it, Gautama sat again to meditate, at which point immediately and effortlessly he started on his enlightenment journey.
He reports that this journey lasted a little less than nine hours. During it, he had numerous and intense visual experiences, including watching his and others’ past lives, deaths, rebirths in various forms with various physical, mental, and moral traits, and passing through heaven and hell. This experience gave him his key insight: there is no “true Self.” Over the years, people called him “Buddha” (the first awakened being in an era).
Today, philosophers of mind call the Buddha the first “bundle theorist” for his radical insight that we are composite beings, composed of the physical traits and talents (itself the result of the genetic endowment from the lottery of birth), and molded by emotional and cognitive understandings developed from our idiosyncratic experience of day to day life within the family, culture, country, and religion we happen to have been born into. These strands come together, magically, like the sound of one hand clapping, to create our individual selves. This insight and its implications preoccupied the Buddha for the rest of his life. His last words were “All composite things change and do not last; work hard to gain your own salvation.”
Eating food after extreme starvation is dangerous—it can manifest “refeeding syndrome.” The earliest modern reports of refeeding syndrome come from World War II: starving prisoners of the Japanese in the Far East, German soldiers at the battle of Stalingrad, concentration camp prisoners, all, on suddenly eating rations exhibited delirium and death, the cause for which was then unknown. One hypothesis is that Gautama too experienced “refeeding syndrome” where the specific constituents of the food he ate played a key role in determining its specific manifestation.
Animal studies have shown that starvation is associated with a long-term inhibition of a family of enzymes called L-monoamine oxidases (MAO). MAO catalyzes the oxidation of monoaminergic neurotransmitters. In humans, there are two types of MAO enzymes: MAO-A and MAO-B, each with different specificities. Serotonin, melatonin, norepinephrine, and epinephrine are mainly broken down by MAO-A. Phenethylamine and benzylamine are mainly broken down by MAO-B, and dopamine, tyramine, and tryptamine are broken down equally well by both forms. Because of the vital role of MAO in inactivating neurotransmitters, MAO dysfunction plays a role in a number of psychiatric and neurological disorders. The most frequently reported symptoms of excessive serotonergic activity are mental status changes and commonly including hallucinations. The most well known hallucinogens (e.g., LSD and psilocybin) create their effects by acting at the presynaptic 5-HT2A receptors located in layer V of the cerebral cortex and interfering with the brain’s serotonin system.
Endogenously generated psychoactive tryptamines may also play a role. Animal studies have indicated that tryptophan and serotonin provide substrates from which the pineal enzymes hydroxyindole O-methyltransferase (HIOMT) and indolethylamine N-methyltransferase (INMT) create a number of psychoactive tryptamines including a potent hallucinogen called 5-methoxy-N,N-dimethyltryptamine. Absent MAO-A and MAO-B, these tryptamines do not break down. How neural circuits mediate any of these hallucinogens remains poorly understood.
Tryptophan is an essential amino acid for humans; humans cannot synthesize it, so they must acquire it as part of their diet. It is the amino acid precursor of serotonin. Milk has one of the highest ratios of tryptophan to protein (2.3 %); rice too is high in tryptophan. Circulating tryptophan is 80-90% loosely and reversibly bound to albumin. It competes with large, neutral amino acids (LNAA) for the same transporters across the blood-brain barrier. This competition, represented by the ratio of the plasma tryptophan level to that of the sum of the other LNAA, determines the uptake of tryptophan into the brain.
One way to alter the competition of amino acids at the blood-brain barrier to favor tryptophan entry is to consume carbohydrates. Carbohydrates trigger insulin release from the pancreas. Insulin causes a chain of events that alters the binding of tryptophan to the albumin in the blood, thereby increasing the level of the free circulating tryptophan. It also simultaneously reduces the blood levels of the LNAA that compete with tryptophan for transport carriers into the brain. A meal rich in tryptophan and carbohydrates will increase free tryptophan and the tryptophan:LNAA ratio, thereby increasing brain serotonin. With simultaneous MAO inhibition, there is danger of serotonergic and tryptiminergic overstimulation.
Gautama reports eating a handful of rice pudding. Assuming this was about 250 grams (half of which was rice and the rest milk, with approximately 10 grams of sugar), then the meal constituted of about 13 grams of tryptophan, 69 grams of carbohydrates, and 9 grams of protein. Gautama’s prolonged starvation had already caused long-term MAO inhibition. Subsequently eating a meal rich in tryptophan and carbohydrates and low in protein would trigger refeeding syndrome with its accompanying altered mental state.
Subjects who have experienced altered brain chemistry due to serotonergic and tryptaminergic hallucinogens often report deep and transformative spiritual insights that would otherwise not have been available to them. Follow-up studies have revealed continued long-term trait changes with origins in the original acute transformative incident, with some subjects claiming that it was among the central events of their life. Subjects are often self-selected as was the case with Gautama; he had previously mastered extant forms of meditation with the best sages available and spent many years obsessed and introspecting on the very meaning of life.
Does the fact that Gautama unwittingly triggered his body’s endogenous hallucinogens via a process we have only recently begun to understand, reduce in any way the meaning and worth of his insights? No. Without his earlier years of hard work and introspection, Gautama would not have had a basis for his insights. As for Gautama Siddhartha, Jim Corbett, and the man-eating tigers, so also for the rest of us: accidents of birth and life make much of whom we are and may make our achievements appear inevitable in hindsight. Yet, they do not diminish the value of the achievement itself.
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- Corbett, J. Jungle Lore. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 5th impression, 1990
- Bharthari, A. R. Walking with Corbett. Dehra Dun: REACH, 2003
- Corbett, J. Man-Eaters of Kumaon. New Delhi, Oxford University Press, 24th impresson, 2002
- Schumann, H. W. The Historical Buddha—The Times, Life and Teaching of the Founder of Buddhism. New York: Arkana., 1989
- Boddhi, B. (ed.) In the Buddha’s Words—An Anthology of Discourses from the Pāli Canon. Boston: Wilson Publications, 2005
- Joseph, P. G. Serotonergic and Tryptaminergic Overstimulation on Refeeding Implicated in “Enlightenment” Experiences, Medical Hypotheses, Elsevier, Vol. 79 (5), 2012, pp. 598-601
- Blackmore, S. Consciousness, An Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004
PAUL JOSEPH, MS received a masters in engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1988 and is now working towards a PhD in artificial intelligence at the University of Massachusetts, where his thesis topic deals with aspects of the “hard AI problem” of human consciousness.