I had never given much thought to the architecture of cells. They were just rounded and blob-like critters, about a trillion of which somehow manage to be this body. Clearly, they are important as the home of the magnificently organized, double-helix DNA and as the mediators of our complex, internal ecosystems, and yet they never seemed very real to me in their own right.
Then, over the summer, I read a book by Sondra Barrett called Secrets of Your Cells. It’s a book I would highly recommend, with the stand-out chapter for me being “The Fabric of Life-Choose.” While Bruce Lipton (The Biology of Belief) has described the membrane, the outer skin of the cell, as the true cellular brain, according to Barrett, further research now suggests that the internal scaffolding, or cytoskeleton, of each cell is the organizing and decision-making brain.
Cells are not just rounded blobs. They are finely organized, tensegrity structures. Tensegrity is a word coined by Buckminster Fuller to describe situations where pushing and pulling forces have a win-win, balanced relationship. His famous geodesic domes are tensegrity structures and are considered among the most stable of human constructions.
The scaffolding of our cells operates on tensegrity principles. If you take that cellular blob and imagine it infused with an array of crisscrossing spiderweb patterns, you are beginning to see the cytoskeleton. Made up of microtubules and different lengths of microfilaments, a push or a pull on this skeletal fabric is all that is needed to send a signal, to send information, coursing through the cell as the rest of the cytoskeleton adjusts to the change in tension. The movement of each tubule and filament coordinates a dance that directs, manages, and coordinates cellular behavior. Each piece of this web has the power to alter genetic expression – and to alter the capabilities of the cell.
Our cells are true shape-shifters. As they stiffen or relax, these changes affect what the cell can do. Stretching out with maximum tension is a signal to reproduce. Balled up with little tension is a signal to relax into death. An in-between tension, a supremely balanced level of tensegrity, is the mark of a mature cell, one that is carrying out its body ecosystem function, say detoxifying substances in the case of a liver cell or producing antibodies in the case of an immune system cell.
I have experienced in my own life how shape – or posture – can change things. Curling the shoulders forward, bringing the head down, contracting the front of the body inward, elicits some immediate changes in overall emotional tone. It takes more effort to find bright and cheery thoughts. Rolling the shoulders back and down, bringing the head up with chin parallel to the ground, letting gravity pull down on the tailbone while levity pulls up on the crown of the head, creates a reverse trend in emotional tone. A relatively small effort brings on optimism and even joy. If you’ve never experimented with this, try it.
The essence of all this for me is that shape is a powerful carrier and transmitter of information, but not just information, I think of meaning as well. The shaping of information is a big part of what our cells are engaged in on a moment-to-moment basis. I am also reminded of the use of the term “gesture” by practitioners of biodyanmics when they speak of the shape or form of a plant. Oaks and pines are both trees, engaged in photosynthesis, soil-building and water-harvesting, and yet the very different shapes they take speaks volumes about the different energies these trees carry, one very motherly and the other very fatherly.
Since taking in this cellular wisdom, it seems that every book I am drawn to, every film I see, makes some reference to shape, structure, or geometry and to the meaning embedded there. The picture of a living, related Universe gains depth and breadth. Next week, I think I’ll be talking about water.