Our bodies contain more bacteria than human cells, and these bacteria not only affect us physically but also influence our mood. This will not simply affect how we eat and the lifestyles we choose to optimize our microbiome but will also influence how we think about the relationship between ourselves and our bacteria. A new research project is building bridges between science and art to reveal what is happening, since we may need to find our mental state based on the relationships between the brain, the gut and the bacteria in our bodies.
In 2011, researchers in the United States carried out a novel experiment using two groups of laboratory mice. One group was nervous and cautious and the other was energetic and outgoing. The researchers proceeded to transplant bacteria from the outgoing mice to the more cautious mice. This changed the behaviour of the cautious mice, which became energetic and outgoing. Danish researchers are studying how these experiments and similar ones trigger shock waves in the research community and society as a whole.
“This led to plenty of speculation and thoughts. The researchers are still only beginning to understand it, but it suggests that we suddenly have to relate to a new part of our world differently than we have so far. The classic concept that we are thinking beings who are outside this world and yet observe the world is breaking down somewhat. Suddenly some of the world lives in us. This new picture is very important for how we view ourselves when we get ill and how we should be treated,” explains Adam Bencard, curator and researcher, Medical Museion and Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Basic Metabolic Research, University of Copenhagen.
The body as an ecosystem
In the project You Are Not Alone: Microbiomes as Model Ecologies in Art and Science, the researchers want to bring together various disciplines across art, philosophy and science to examine some of these concepts and images of the human body that have emerged from this new research. Further, the experiences of patients will play a significant role. They thus hope to contribute to initiating thoughts and creating new images that can inspire society as a whole, art and especially science.
We will not merely examine what researchers are doing in laboratories, what artists are doing and what patients experience. We will try to convene these people and examine the synergy that arises as they interact and what questions emerge in the gaps between the relatively fixed groups, because this is where the new images come from. They do not come from the established world, but from the fringe.
The background for the project is that research on the microorganisms living on and in our bodies has skyrocketed in the past 10 years. This research links these microorganisms to our general health and, perhaps most strangely, to our mental health. The research currently proposes an axis between the brain, the gut and the bacteria in our bodies and that how we experience ourselves is somewhere on this axis.
“In many ways, we still have this classic image of the body as a collection of organs, like a machine – a brain that thinks, a heart that beats and pumps blood around and a gut that digests – kind of like a factory and an engine that makes fuel for the rest of the system. However, this new research suggests much more communication and relationships between the parts of the body.”
Mind the Gut
According to Adam Bencard, more than being a machine, we should see the body as an ecosystem or as a superorganism – a partnership between many different species that work together. But what does this mean for how we heal the body? How do you repair an ecosystem?
“In a machine, you isolate the defective part so you can replace it with a new spare part. In contrast, in an ecosystem, removing something or applying pressure to the system can have effects in completely different places than you usually think about. This is already coming into play in many of the ways that we are ill today. Many of the things that go wrong such as diabetes and obesity are not so easily solved and understood from a narrow mechanical way of thinking but are something multifactorial with a lifestyle-embedded chronic root.”
The Mind the Gut exhibition at the Medical Museion has already kick-started a dialogue with the general public around the new mind-blowing, fun, interesting and alternative opportunities this new knowledge creates. The researchers are hoping that the new project will not only continue this interesting and relevant dialogue but will also create a few shock waves in the wider world, integrating experts in various disciplines into the discussion on this topic.
As people, we want some relatively straightforward answers to the problems we have. This is not possible here because the situation is so complex that it leads to much worry and anxiety. There are many indications that we have already damaged our microbiome by using all the antibiotics and by our urge to wash and scrub, and wrap in plastic, which we have done for the past 150 years, for understandable reasons. But we have not fully understood that the bacteria in us play a role in our health and mental state, and we are beginning to understand their importance. This is also something we should now get used to.
“Exhibiting health and medicine as culture” has been published in Public Health Panorama. The Novo Nordisk Foundation awarded a grant in 2017 to Adam Bencard, Medical Museion for the project “You Are Not Alone: Microbiomes as Model Ecologies in Art and Science”.