I am not a doctor.
But my father is.
In fact, he is an immunologist.
So what follows below is not medical advice but a story of reconciliation (with some possible medicinal effects).
You see, my father and I have been more or less estranged for the last few years – and even before that we only communicated once in a while, maybe once a year, since we have been living in different continents, me in Canada and my father in Japan, for more than two decades.
It is only really the last few months that we have had consistent amicable communication for the first time in decades.
As far as back as I can remember, there has been a distance in my relationship with my father, a stuckness in understanding each other’s way of seeing the world. He wanted me to follow in his footsteps and become a scientist.
I naturally went the opposite direction, studied comparative religions, then ditched that, went to art school, and finally, ended up as a therapist after what was basically a (still unfolding) mid-life crisis.
Part of me resisting his desire for me to do scientific research was undoubtedly related to his unfortunate position in our family. He has always been a kind of lone genius, whose work we understood to be incredibly impactful but had no idea what it actually meant. Like many archetypal, or maybe more appropriately, stereotypical, ‘gifted children’, he had little everyday life skills to maintain relationships – something that I have obviously inherited a bit of myself.
What I do remember of him fondly from my childhood is that he absolutely loved talking about pandemics. Andromeda Strain was a favored book in our household.
Fast forward to 2020 and there is a global pandemic phenomenon – and it has brought me back to understanding him and his work. We’re emailing back and forth.
It’s hard to describe the ironic humour I find in how I am spending hours obsessively trying to understand the so-called immune system and the functions of its many minions, T-cells, B-cells, lymphocytes, neutrophils, and so on – all these labels and terms that as a kid made my brain just turn off and my eyes roll into the back of my head at the dinner table.
But as fate has it, my foray into magick, animism, and neurobiology has ultimately led me back discover that we have been exploring the same world all along – just from different entrances – our neurological and immune systems are a part of a larger whole that modulates together.
I want to switch gears here and officially welcome another character to this story: COVID19. This pandemic spirit who has caused much death and chaos has also been responsible for accelerating the timeline for my father and I’s reconciliation.
It’s only with the anxious fear of death that COVID19 inspired in me that I would have bothered to do the research to look up how it causes fatality, through which I learned about cytokine storms – a phenomenon that happens when a viral infection of other factor triggers a hyper-inflammatory response that can overwhelm the body. In the case of COVID19, cytokine storms can be triggered by pneumonia it brings on in some patients and can cause a fatal chain of failures in the lungs and other organs.
Hearing that COVID19 ultimately kills through an autoimmune response brought me a bit emotional relief, being able to anchor into something I already feel confident I know something about – even though I wasn’t nearly settled about it. I’ve been intrigued by chronic autoimmune conditions and their connection to nervous system dysregulation from complex trauma, including ancestral trauma, for quite a while.
I emailed my father about the connection between the vagus nerve and cytokine storms.
His reply back was excited, even elated, and a lot of garbly jargon. To his credit though, it did have some keywords that led me on to better google searches about the relationship between the inflammatory reflex and the vagus nerve.
I have to say that it’s hilarious – even endearing – to read his emails about the vagus nerve and the way it regulates the immune response but remembering that he has had very little idea of how to do exactly that in his real daily life.
(Apparently though, he has purchased a book by Peter Levine on somatic experiencing, recommended by his therapist – who he has only been seeing for three months after being essentially reprimanded by me – and has also been doing loving kindness meditations, including thinking of me.)
Further researching the neuroimmune modulation brought me to the work of another prominent Japanese immunologist, Toru Abo.
One of Abo’s major contributions of conceptualizing how the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches of the nervous system shift our immune response:
- The sympathetic nervous system, activated in states of excited play and exploration, or fight or flight when in a survival response, tend to shift the immune system to produce granulocytes, of which the common type are neutrophils. This is significant as neutrophils and other granulocytes are specialized in handling acute distress and involved in the body’s inflammatory response.
- The parasympathetic nervous system, activated in states of rest-and-digest, or freeze when in a survival response, tends shift the immune system to produce lymphocytes, which are particularly effective in managing viral infections as well as preventing chronic issues such as development tumors.
Abo attributes the existence of these two distinct immunomodulation styles to the body’s needs in wild vs. social environments. The activities of hunting and foraging, that engage sympathetic activation, requires the body to be protected from cuts and bacterial infections that may come in through those open wounds. Hence, the production of granulocytes. On the other hand, in relaxed social environments that engage parasympathetic activation, such as a village with livestock, the main threats are viral infections that spread human-to-human or animal-to-human. This is in alignment with the production of lymphocytes when we are in rested states.
This leads us to consider the connection between the relationship between chronic stress and the fatality of COVID19. It is apparent from Abo’s hypothesis that constant sympathetic activation means the body’s balance of granulocytes to lymphocytes becomes deeply thrown off. Indeed, a high neutrophil-to-lymphocyte ratio is said to be a key indicator of poor COVID19 outcomes as it is connected to an increased probability of cytokine storms.
Relevant to this, I watched a talk with Bruce Lipton, who broke down how the fear of COVID19 is likely to create a dynamic that exacerbates the fatality of it because of fear’s impact on the nervous system. There is likely a large part of the COVID19 phenomenon that is generated by the fear-dependent nature of our communication across various media platforms – it’s bad mass hypnosis.
I had to agree.
One of our great challenges in this pandemic, and life in general, is: how do we face destabilization in a reasonably regulated state, neither overly activated or passively dissociated by threat.
It seems like most governments are not capable of such a neurological feat. In some ways, I can’t blame them. I’ve had great personal difficulty managing dysregulation has been for me – and I’m someone who is constantly training their nervous system.
So how do we deal with this fear?
Something that I believe is a big part of this is how we conceive of our immune system itself.
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Someone who follows my blog sent me a reference to a book by Ed Cohen called: “A body worth defending”. It was a bit of a heady read for me, based on critical theory, but it still had important nuggets.
The term immunity in fact comes from law and originates in the Roman Empire. It refers to being exempt from legal bounds. Immunity began to be used in biology in the 18th century to describe the paradigm of seeing the body as a territory that is owned by man, where there is a constant need for invaders to be warded off. This means our modern conception of the immune system has an ideological connection to imperialism in all of its forms, which of course is an entirely fear-based collective behavior.
What I found fascinating about this was that in the end, it seemed that the operation of our immune system came down to a highly philosophical question of distinguishing between self and non-self.
Truth be told, I spent a few hours trying to figure out how the immune system determines what is self and what is not and ultimately found no satisfying answers. Our entire body functions on a metaphysical self-understanding that isn’t actually quantifiable and is quite arbitrary.
I believe this also means that our philosophical understanding of ourselves may change how our immune system operates. And in fact, I think this is what autoimmune illnesses teach us, including COVID19.
The stakes of understanding how our self-perception impacts our nervous system, and how that in turn deeply changes how we interface with the world, isn’t just applicable to the functioning of our immune system.
It isn’t lost on me that the mechanism of cytokine storms echo the self-inflicted violence of call-out/outrage culture. It is again, nervous systems overloading and protection systems going into a hyperdrive that causes internal collapse.
In my observation of accountability abuse in social justice communities, time and time again, I’ve seen the cultural somatic ‘immune system’ kick in to mistakenly over target individuals because of the hyper-activated voice of a few, while failing to address deeper chronic failures, leaving dysfunctional organizations and community leaders unquestioned and intact.
Here too, there is a deeply philosophical problem of “who are we, who are we not”, behind our failings in collective wellbeing.
With that diversion, I want to come back to my father, for whom these kinds of meanderings are delightful yet exacerbating, given they far surpass his spiritual capacity as a materialistic scientist.
One love of mine that my father introduced me to was jazz music. He was an avid collector in his med school days – some 5000 pieces of black wax that have since gone missing in storage.
His passion was so much that he used to sign his notebooks as ‘Monk’, referring to the legendary and mysterious piano virtuoso, Thelonius Monk.
When I was in my pre-teens my father took me to watch a Monk documentary. At the time, I didn’t get it at all. The music was completely confusing. I probably wanted to watch Ghostbusters or something like that.
What did make an impression though was a scene in which a huddle of session musicians were asking Monk about his notation: “is this note B or B flat?” Monk, almost inaudibly gruff, responded: “it doesn’t really fucking matter” – or something to that effect.
I later learned that the genius of Monk was that, breaking all conventional rules, he would play the piano with a flat hand, which meant his fingers would catch ‘mistakes’ of notes that shouldn’t be in the music – dissonant pieces that his body made unique sense of.
Monk was also notorious for a crooked sense of rhythm that had an intricate internal logic.
When I think of our immune system, and how we may think of what belongs and what does not belong, I’ve found that what makes the most sense is to actually just listen to Monk playing solo.
Listening to Monk, I imagine that, while my Father and I may struggle at understanding each other’s worlds in language, we can find a meeting place in Monk’s music where we may break the self-other dualism of our mind and rest in the embodied mystery of why it feels so OK, even good, for things, including ourselves, to be out of place.
I hope to see my father soon.
That’s my COVID19 Blues.