DE  RERUM NATURA:  21 GRAMS OF SPIRIT  AND  SEVEN OUNCES OF DESIRE

MANILA, MAY 7, 2006
 (STAR) DE RERUM NATURA By Maria Isabel Garcia - How do we measure life? In grams of spirit? In floral ounces of passion? In sums of joy?

In 1907, page 5 of the New York Times carried the " weight of the soul" in an article entitled "The Soul Has Weight, Physician Thinks." It featured the result of a poorly designed experiment by Dr. Duncan MacDougall of Haverhill, Massachusetts who wanted to prove that the "soul" was a physical reality and therefore should have "weight" and he wanted to know how much. One after the other, he placed and observed six dying patients on a special bed he designed with balanced beams for a scale. He claimed that the weight loss before and after the last breath was about three-fourths of an ounce or 21.3 grams – an amount that would fill about half the smallest bottle of a Vicks vapor rub. He also performed the experiment on dogs and finding no weight difference before and after life, he concluded that a dog may be man’s best friend but it did not have a soul. Due to the controversy engendered by the weirdness of his experiment and what it attempted to measure, his efforts merited the front page of the New York Times on July 24, 1911 in a report entitled "As to Picturing the Soul." It was about his attempts to take a photograph of the human soul. Eventually, his claims on the human soul, in weight and in photos, failed to stand the scrutiny of his scientific peers and he died in 1920, leaving some with a lingering curiosity about the weight of the human soul and more profitably, with an idea for a film called "21 grams" that was shown sometime in 2003.

Ninety-nine years and 6,794,488 US patent applications later, science news moves from measuring the soul to what it would take to light its fire: desire! It is not Viagra. It is bremelanotide, formerly called PT 141, the first nasal spray aphrodisiac, which is now undergoing Phases 2 and 3 of its clinical testing (clinical testings require four phases) in women and men, respectively. The story of its discovery everywhere in science news since 2002, and most recently in an article by Julian Dibbel in The Guardian last April 23, reads like an episode of The Simpsons.

About four years ago, Palatin Technologies Inc., the company that owns the patent to bremelanotide, was actually testing a sunless tanning substance on men. The experiment turned up many side effects but one in particular was so interesting and potent with marketing possibilities that Palatin Technologies realigned its resources to pursue the molecule responsible for reliably engineering the remarkably "pointed" postures of its male subjects. The drug reportedly comes from a new class of drugs called "melanocortin agonists" which means it can carry a "happy" kind of "agonia" – the type of pleasure that will cause the writhing or the throes of your limbs – NOT through the bloodstream like Viagra does but through the information highway in your nervous system! In other words, the fire of desire will be transmitted to the main headquarters in your brain and not to your southern field station. Men’s southern fields have been known to launch without so much as a whistle from their brains but women do require a clear coordination between the brain and Venus’ southern fire. I bet it did not even take a corporate huddle for the marketing analysts of Palatin Technologies to figure out that bremelanotide could also target the launching of desires not just in men but in women as well. It was difficult to keep a straight face reading all the historical accounts of this drug that included generous statements of praise from anonymous human "sprayers" of desire in clinical trials as well as accounts of "desire counters" looking for "hard" evidence of passion in unsuspecting male rats that were being periodically sprayed with bremelanotide.

Of the critiques of this pharmacological bringer of desire, one of the ones I found most thoughtful was by Leoneore Tiefer, a professor of Psychiatry at New York University of Medicine. In sum, she asked: Why do we want to bypass the "old-fashioned" emotional coils that lead to desire? I agree with her. There are life "choices and conditions," unadulterated by the vapor spray contained in a seven-floral ounce atomizer, that could launch a kind of woman’s desire that would shame the 4th of July. Any woman would tell you that a relationship where she can grow and pursue her own passions according to her own rhythm, is a state so ripe for the birth of deep and lasting desire for her beloved that their love story could shame the sexiest episodes in TV or film memory. And guess what? A counter-experiment showed that even female rats, when given a choice to have sex with her male companion (as opposed to being locked in with her male rat) or not, exhibited the same amount of desire, as if she were given the spray of desire. Goodness, scientists needed to look at female rats first to know this about women? But what about those who are already secure in emotion but could not reliably proceed to the hormonal highway of desire? Would they care for a potion for passion – would three whiffs be enough for a night of bliss? And what about a lifetime of happiness? Is there a formula in liters for pressurized showers of joy?

Mike Rudin, series producer of this upcoming six-week BBC series entitled The Happiness Formula, wrote a short article on this on BBC online last April 30. The researchers, led by American psychologist Professor Ed Diener from the University of Illinois, want to go around asking people all over the world "How happy are you 1-7, 1-10?" This is based on previous studies that seemed to show that despite the rises in the standard of living in many places, people do not become happier. Studies in Britain also showed that beyond an annual income of 10,000 British pounds, there is no corresponding increase in "happiness" among the Britons. They want to come up with some key indicators of happiness based on the answers they will get. I now suspect that my little nephew Gambit is the leader of some lost command of that BBC happiness-finding team. Last week, on our short vacation, he wanted to ask what the meaning of life is from a uniformed stranger until I stopped him and explained to him that the meaning of life is not exactly the kind of "information" that one asks a crew assigned in the information booth in a ferry to Mindoro.

When science attempts to measure the "intangibles" like spirit and emotions, such as joy, happiness or desire – those that have traditionally been cradled by the intricate net of religion and the arts – science seems more like the Meralco meter reader, the census counter or the municipal surveyor. Armed with Swiss army knife versatility, flicking mathematical formulas, calibrated scales and sprays, as well as beeping and glowing machines, these "counters" come and "read" the activity in our lives as reflected in the electricity we use, the number of people we live with and the area of the terrain we inhabit. They give us important sums and areas about what we do and where we are but all those measures in science put together could not faithfully reconstruct the worth of one single day plucked from a whole stretch of someone’s life or that one timeless moment that Neruda describes as "a clash of lightning bolts and two bodies defeated by a single drop of honey." But I cannot scoff at science for trying to measure the "irregularly" shaped contours of our humanness. In instances like this, I see science more like the surveyor in the film, "The Englishman who climbed a hill but went down a mountain." Based on a true story that happened in Wales, it is about a surveyor who had a classifying problem when a particular mountain that was always believed by village folk to be a mountain, turned out to be 16 feet short of technically being one. To remedy this "geologic misunderstanding," the village folk formed a chain to the mountain to add more "soil" so that the mountain will rise over 16 feet more and "qualify" as a mountain for the record. The "measure" of the mountain was eventually defeated by its "worth" to its inhabitants.

"Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes" is a song that a close friend always sings to me when we celebrate anything. It approaches in melodic minutes the measure of a year in song. It goes on to say "... in daylights, in sunsets, in midnights, in cups of coffee... in inches, in miles, in laughter, in strife… in truths that she learned, or in times that he cried... in bridges he burned... or the way that she died."

How do we measure the worth of our lives? I guess by living and loving with all that we are – by defeating math with the very weight of life.


Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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