Molecules of Emotion: Why you feel the way you feel


Candace B. Pert


Pocket Books






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Molecules of Emotion is one of the most readable scientific texts that I have come across. This is because Pert, the author, mixes the explanation of her research and discoveries with an autobiographical account of how the discoveries were made and how she had to fight against the male-dominated scientific community to be recognised for her own achievements. In sort, the book is neuroscience meets John Le Carre-style thriller.

Pert's story began when, following a riding accident, she was given morphine. While recovering, she marvelled at how, apart from relieving the pain, each injection of morphine filled her with a sense of euphoria and well-being. It was this experience that sparked her interest in the connection between the mind and body.

The thought was that for the morphine to work there had to be "receptors" in the brain capable of receiving and interpreting the chemical message contained within the morphine. And, if such receptors existed, it followed that the human body must already produce that same chemical message itself - otherwise a receptor for the message wouldn't exist in the first place and the morphine would not have any effect. So began Pert's mission, to find the Opiate Receptor.

What made her goal so challenging was that at the time, the early 1970s, the scientific community saw distinct boundaries between the physical neuroscience of the brain, and what might be described as the more psychological foundation of emotion. Pert's work was therefore challenging the convention that these boundaries should not be crossed. It is for this reason that her story reads a bit like a thriller.

Her descriptions of the cut-throat world of research science are really quite shocking, and lead on to question to the morals of people who will delay announcing new findings that could benefit people purely for the sake of their own careers. In her own case and despite the significance of her findings, her sponsors and colleagues actually worked to exclude her from the prestigious Lasker Award and a subsequent Nobel nomination. Something she rather generously describes in the following way: "Truly original, boundary breaking ideas are rarely welcomed at first, no matter who proposes them. Protecting the prevailing paradigm, science moves slowly, because it doesn't want to make mistakes. Consequently genuinely new and important ideas are often subjected to nitpickingly intense scrutiny, if not downright rejection and revulsion, and getting them published becomes a Sisyphean labour."

Having successfully identified receptors in the brain, Pert concluded that "Neuropeptides and their receptors thus join the brain, glands and immune system in a network of communication between the brain and body, probably representing the biochemical substrate of emotion."

For this reason she adopted the term "bodymind" as her findings were painting a picture of the absolute interconnectedness of mind and body.

After this point I feel that the book loses its focus and becomes somewhat rambling. Instead of presenting scientific discoveries and facts, Pert makes various suppositions and unsupported claims about alternative therapies and mind-body connections. She justifies this by ridiculing the scientific works by saying; "Unless we can measure something, science won't concede it exists". While I accept her point, I think it is confusing to seamlessly move from fact to hypothesis in this way.

It is however a very good book and one I enjoyed reading.

Published December 2008