Body Electricity

For the first few months that I took Dilantin (PHT) I gave little thought to how the medicine worked. How it worked was a lot less important to me than that it did work. But one day I noticed that the flat, metallic taste in my mouth, which I’d associated with electricity, was gone. As I thought back about it, I realized that it had been gone since I’d started taking PHT.

A hypothesis about electricity had led me to ask for PHT. Was this a coincidence? It seemed unlikely. When a hypothesis precedes and leads to a finding, the hypothesis is apt to be correct. My thinking went back to electricity in the body.

Recently I found some notes to myself, made in 1963. These notes help me remember what my thoughts were at that time. From my notes] “I noticed figures of speech that described human emotions in electrical terms. Before then I’d thought of these terms as imaginative inventions of writers. But perhaps they weren’t. Maybe sensitive people had used them instinctively because they were near the truth. There are enough of these electrical expressions to make a parlor game. Some follow:

state of tension shocking experience
room charged with tension state of shock
get a charge out of something it gave me a jolt
electrifying experience blow your fuse
the touchdown electrified the crowd blow your top
dynamic personality sparks flew
magnetic personality explosive temper
galvanized into action explode with anger

“This list, with its references to anger and fear, led to other thoughts. I knew that an electric goad was used in rodeos to frighten animals into rambunctious performances, and that batteries had been used to make racehorses run faster. I’d read that an electric jolt causes the hair to stand on end.

“Could electricity be the mechanism that makes the fur on a dog rise when he is angry or when he is frightened? Could it account for the spectacular bristling of a cat in the act of welcoming a dog? How about our own fur? When we’re scared the hair on the nape of our neck rises and we have ‘hair-raising’ experiences. And don’t we bristle with anger? Didn’t these things seem to connect anger and fear with electricity in the body?” [End of the notes]

I had gone as far as I could as an amateur. I needed a professional to tell me whether my ideas about electricity in the body made sense. But where could I find such a person? Whenever I’m stumped as to how to find someone or locate something, I have a simple method. I ask Howard Stein. I don’t know how he does it but he never lets me down. I asked Howard, “Do you know how I can meet with somebody who’s an expert on electricity in the body?” Howard said he thought so. He went to Yura Arkus-Duntov, head of the Dreyfus Fund’s science research. Within a week Yura had made arrangements for me to meet with Dr. Peter Suckling, a neurobiophysicist from Downstate Medical Center.

Dr. Suckling, with his nice Australian accent, had good vibes for me (a modern electrical term?). He was an expert on bioelectrical activity and had been an associate of Sir John Eccles, an authority in the field and a Nobel Prize winner. Dr. Suckling and I had three long meetings in my office at 2 Broadway. It was a nice office, facing New York Harbor, and Peter liked it. He said he thought the moving scenery of boats helped with thinking. I hoped so.

The first question I asked Peter was, “Can you weigh the electricity in a cat?” I thought cats had an extra share of electricity, because of their hair-raising act. Peter disappointed me by saying electricity can’t be measured that way. It’s inside the body, but the whole animal itself is grounded. I didn’t know what that meant but I took his word for it. For the first time, I heard about the excitatory nervous system, the inhibitory nervous system, membranes, axons, synapses, negative potentials, sodium and potassium, and how a disproportionate amount of chemicals inside and outside the cell made for the electrical potential across the membrane.

Peter labored hard to explain the working of bioelectrical activity to me. By using simple illustrations, he got into me, shoehorn fashion, a rudimentary idea of how electricity works in the body. I won’t burden the reader with the whole discussion, but I will summarize some of what Peter said.

The cell is a complicated entity in which thousands of activities take place. Peter said most of them were not relevant to our discussion. What was relevant was the electrical potential of the cell. He explained that the body of a cell is enclosed by a membrane, and in a nerve cell the electrical potential is minus ninety millivolts, relative to the outside of the cell. Peter said the reason there is this negative potential is because of a disproportionate amount of substances inside the cell relative to outside the cell—particularly sodium and potassium. Peter spoke of the membrane with obvious admiration: “This very thin membrane can sustain an electrical tension better than most insulators. The insulation strength is high. It has to be strong; it’s so very thin.” Then, in considerable detail, he explained the electrochemical mechanisms involved in the discharge of electrical activity. I won’t go into that here.

Peter said that there are about ten billion cells in the brain—each with an electrical potential. (The figure of ten billion is imprecise. The latest census has it considerably higher.) He said that even a slight imbalance in individual cells, because of the proliferative possibilities, could cause a problem in a large area of the brain. He told me that cells vary in length in the human. In nerve cells the speed of impulse transmission varies from one hundred meters a second to three meters a second. All the cells in the human body, although they do not have the same amount of electrical potential, work on the same principle. Peter said this was true in other animals and, for that matter, all living things. Apparently when the Lord came up with a good thing like the cell he used it over and over again.

At the beginning I didn’t tell Peter what my interest was. I didn’t want to influence him one way or the other. I realized later that this had been a needless precaution because we were dealing with a pretty exact science. In the meantime, Peter had been trying to figure out why the president of a mutual fund and partner of a brokerage firm was asking all these questions. He’d assumed my interest was in business. On the third day, when I told him about PHT, Peter astonished me by saying, “Oh, my goodness, I thought you were considering giving testosterone to the customer’s brokers to make them produce better.” Perhaps like making hens lay eggs faster (Merrill Lynch—consider).

Then I explained to Peter what my experiences with PHT had been. Apologizing for the unscientific sound of it, and speaking allegorically, I said I felt that the brain of a person who needed PHT was like a bunch of dry twigs. It seemed that a thought of fear or anger would light the dry twigs, the fire would spread out of control, and the thoughts couldn’t be turned off. PHT seemed to act like a gentle rain on the twigs, and the fire (and thoughts) could be kept under control. I asked Peter if these impressions made sense. Peter said he had not done specific work with PHT, but my impressions were not inconsistent with the known fact that PHT prevented the spread of excessive electrical discharge. That was good news.

A few weeks after our last meeting, Peter performed an invaluable service. He sent me a copy of Goodman & Gilman’s Pharmacological Basis of Therapeutics, considered to be the bible of pharmaceuticals by the medical profession, and said he thought I would find it useful. I hadn’t known there was such a book. In the section on PHT I found this: “Coincident with the decrease in seizures there occurs improvement in intellectual performance. Salutary effects of the drug PHT on personality, memory, mood, cooperativeness, emotional stability, amenability to discipline, etc., are also observed, sometimes independently of seizure control.”

I read and reread this paragraph. I could hardly believe it. Salutary effects in mood, emotional stability, etc. Here it was—in a medical book of high repute. Yet none of the doctors I’d met had ever heard of these uses. How could this be?

Next Section: A Soft Voice in a Deaf Ear