Last week, the immune system was introduced as a part of us that behaves. It behaves in such a way as to distinguish ourselves from our “not-ourselves.” This is quite a trick, and is currently keeping legions of researchers busy. When you get a new hip or kidney, one of the tools we have to trying to put the immune system to sleep so that it doesn’t reject your new organ.
For those of us who study behavior, it’s far more interesting. One of the great questions facing us today is “where does consciousness reside” and “where does consciousness come from?” We don’t know the answers, but those who are in-the-know are looking in the brain. They are looking at our software, and they are looking at the way our neurons fire.
But the whole concept of self and non-self starts at the cellular level. Our immune system isn’t part of the brain, it’s part of every cell in our body. It’s built into our thyroid, our lymph nodes, and many other components we don’t even know about yet. And it knows who we are. More importantly, it knows who we aren’t.
That’s the whole point of being conscious, being self-aware. Research can’t fully address the question of who we are until it accepts the fact that our immune system knows the answer.
Perhaps, just perhaps, more “consciousness researchers” should be studying the immune system rather than their computer system.