The Supremacy of the Mind

Having established that in the nefesh elokis the intellect should give rise to the affects rather than the reverse, the Alter Rebbe goes on to make a bold statement that “it is inborn in a person that the mind can be master over the heart, i.e emotions”. This may be a difficult concept to grasp.


It is related that during Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, the Alter Rebbe was accused of spying for the enemy. Using a primitive “lie detector” technique, an officer rushed in suddenly and put his hand over the Alter Rebbe’s heart. An increase in heart rate would have been taken as evidence that he was anxious about being detected. When the Alter Rebbe’s heart rate did not increase, it was assumed that he was falsely accused. (Another version is that this did not occur to the AlterRebbe, but to one of his chassidim, R’ Moshe Meisels.)


Imagine someone barging in on you without warning. In all likelihood this would alarm you and cause an increase in your heart rate, even if it was not an army officer or a policeman. The AlterRebbe, however, was able to control his heart rate.


Just legend, you say? Today, this is not at all far fetched.


Traditionally, physiologists spoke of the “voluntary nervous system” and the “involuntary nervous system.” Most of our movements are controlled by the voluntary nervous system. We move our arms and legs and change the gaze of our eyes as we wish. The muscles of these parts of the body are under voluntary control. However, the size of our pupils is regulated by very fine muscles in the eye, and the flow of blood is regulated by muscle fibers around the blood vessels. We cannot change the size of our pupils or control our blood flow voluntarily.


Or, perhaps we can. In the early 1960’s research psychologists investigated the effect of emotion on the “involuntary” nervous system, and found that a person can, in fact, be trained to have control of the “involuntary” nervous system. This is by a method known as “biofeedback.” It turns out that the “involuntary nervous system” is not really involuntary, but rather “less voluntary.” If there is reason to do so, a person can be trained to dilate or constrict his pupils at will.


Biofeedback has now been developed as an effective measure in treatment of a variety of medical conditions, e.g., migraine headaches, muscle tension headaches, high blood pressure, and back pain. More sophisticated techniques have even enabled a person to control one’s brain wave activity, thus providing an adjunctive treatment for epilepsy.


The Alter Rebbe’s statement that “it is inborn in a person that the mind can be master over the heart” has now been confirmed scientifically. If a person can be trained to control even one’s brain waves, this means that there is an inborn potential for the mind to be master over one’s entire being. What has been achieved by biofeedback can also be achieved by dedicated effort. It is just that the average person does not make that concerted effort.


The tzaddik of Sanz rarely slept more than two hours in a twenty-four hour period. He explained, “A fast runner can cover a distance in much less time than a slower runner. I am a fast sleeper. I can sleep in two hours what others sleep in six hours.”


Sleep studies have elucidated that there are several levels of sleep. One level is known as REM (Rapid Eye Movement). It is during REM sleep that a person dreams. Out of six hours of sleep, only two of the six hours may be REM. If a person sleeps attached to an electroencephalograph and is awoken at the beginning of each REM period and allowed to return to non-REM sleep, he may have even eight hours of non-REM sleep and feel totally exhausted.


Normally, REM sleep does not occur until after a period of non-REM sleep. If a person were able to have REM sleep without the preparatory non-REM sleep, he might well be rested after two hours of REM sleep.


Perhaps the tzaddik of Sanz was able to do what biofeedback has shown to be possible; namely, control his brain wave activity. If so, it is possible that he was indeed a “fast sleeper,” and could get along with just two hours of REM sleep.


What may have appeared to be a theory that could not be realized, namely, the Alter Rebbe’s assertion that “it is inborn in a person that the mind can be master over the heart” now has scientific validity.