When we look at a newborn, we experience an encounter with a personality. But personality is not an isolated personality. As the philosopher Hegel also emphasized, we do not develop alone, but much that shapes us has to do with our community, with our destiny. From the beginning, the personality grows up in a constellation of other personalities and very different circumstances. What is less well known is that personality development is intimately related to the development of the immune system. Both do not begin with our birth. In order to understand them, we have to look even further back: to the time of pregnancy.
Pregnancy is a time in which we develop or imagine our physicality. We are not alone, but as unborn children we take in every joy, the voice, the singing of the mother as well as every fear, every stress of the mother that exceeds a certain level. When we look at an unborn child, we see a body in the making. He swims in the amniotic fluid with his tiny limbs. We see its connection to the maternal womb and the outer coverings that surround the child. The outermost shell, the chorion, differentiates into an organ that grows very intimately with the mother: the placenta. It is the most important organ of the unborn child. From there the child begins to build up its body, which at the beginning of its development is almost entirely head, and unfolds its powerful nervous system. The placenta, however, has no nervous system, no bones, the entire blood of the unborn child flows through it in one minute – and yet it controls the development processes in the embryo in a decisive way. Their outstanding function is the heat regulation of the unborn child. This is the most important regulation of life at all. The warmth of the fetus, which is kept half a degree warmer than the mother’s body temperature, is regulated by the placenta. The placenta functions as a peripheral heart and is the ‘peripheral central organ’ of this unborn child, like the sun for all life on earth. The placenta is viable even without an embryo; she is directly attached to the mother. Only after birth does our brain take over its own heat regulation. What does that have to do with the immune system? We know, that at 39 degrees fever our immune system is optimally efficient, that its performance is dependent on heat. Even animals that depend on the environment for warmth seek warmer places when infected, thereby increasing their chances of survival.
The placenta is an organ that naturally shields the child, but at the same time creates a strong bond with the mother. The placenta is a border organ between the child and the mother, it forms a protection through which the child does not go along with everything that the mother experiences, but the protection can also be overwhelmed when there is a lot of stress.
In the last trimester of pregnancy, the placenta develops a microbiome, a bacterial life. In this way, the child is already immunologically prepared for life outside of the mother. The human immune system matures when it encounters the microbial world. Decades ago, physicians imagined the body to be sterile. Today we know that this is not the case. We carry bacteria in our lungs, on our skin, in our intestines, etc. And since 2014 it has been known that a bacterial flora also develops in the placenta. Surprisingly, this microbiome of the placenta does not resemble the vaginal flora, but the flora of the maternal oral cavity. Good dental status and a healthy diet can also indirectly affect the placenta.
Placenta as periphery incarnate
The placenta is relevant, both in terms of the development of our immune system and personality development. But what is personality? What is the ‹I› that we love to talk about? Rudolf Steiner says: “The ego is something essential.” It is about a ‘being’, something that does not currently occur in natural science. In addition, Rudolf Steiner pointed out: “The central organ of the ego during pregnancy is the placenta.” The placenta is the seat of the ego during pregnancy, in a completeness that we no longer have in us after birth.
We are never as physically present as individuals as we are in this phase of life, in which we build up the whole body, which later becomes a mirror of ourselves – even if this is an unconscious presence. The placenta forms the starting point of our individual bodily development and, on the other hand, an ‹I-organ› that is completely fused with the mother’s organism and that becomes the starting point of our immune and personality development. It is warmth that is central to all bodily processes. There, where heat is regulated, where heat conditions are formed in our body, there our ego is physically present and active. There, where we catch cold, where we are not, where we no longer feel our organism because it is so cold, foreign things can settle in, alienate the body. At the very end of his life, Rudolf Steiner came up with the term ‹ego organization› for the individual body-creating activity, the ego activity. It is linked to the physical heat regulation. And a particularly high expression of it is the immune system. This brings us very specifically to what we call individual personality.
However, our heat organization and much more of our bodily organization is not yet viable on its own at birth. As human beings, we need the opportunity to settle into a human being who connects us, who gives support and attention and who I thereby also change a little bit. The ego can initially only be present in the body through the you. This is what early childhood development during pregnancy, but also after birth, shows us in a particularly impressive way. This secret of the I is a secret of center and periphery. Everything that was contained as a function in the placenta and thus in the periphery of the body develops into separate organs with different functions in the child’s body. In the placenta everything was united, undivided, like in a sun. In the new body they become separate organs, earth maturity arises. The placenta, this ‘pure’ seat of the ego, will never set foot on earth. Finally, the child – under natural circumstances – triggers its birth through the placenta. This initiation of birth also initiates the death of the placenta.
Review begins in the gut
For the development of the immune system, the relationship between beings is very important. If we artificially separate the child from its mother at a time it did not choose, it will have consequences for the immune system for many years. The immune system will not develop as well. The differences are now widely known from studies of children born by planned caesarean section. In general, a good first-name relationship between children and their parents and fellow human beings promotes the development of the immune system, and human neglect can have a particularly ‘toxic’ effect and increase stress.
The immune system is a digestive system and it comes from digestion. It is a system that allows us to digest foreign matter anywhere in our body, not just in the gut. Two thirds of this immune system always remain connected to the gut. The gut is the primary place where we internalize, break down, transform and rebuild something of the world within ourselves. It is well known that the microbial life in our gut is of crucial importance for our immune system.
In 1920, when hardly anyone could understand him, Rudolf Steiner pointed out in medical lectures that we internalize the microbial life in us in the intestine, that we draw some of the strength out of it and that our mental presence of the personality is influenced by the microbial life in our intestine depends. The brain is the back of our gut. The doctors at the time found his lectures completely incomprehensible. But with the current state of medicine, this becomes more understandable.
The normal architecture of the brain, especially the blood-brain barrier, develops depending on our intestinal flora and the substances – short-chain fatty acids – that we absorb from this flora. In a healthy way, the intestinal flora is originally a gift from the breastfeeding mother. Milk carries over 100 types of bacteria to the intestines. Nothing that used to be considered sterile is sterile. In dealing with this microbial life, the immune system also learns one of its most important skills: to stop and limit inflammation. We suffer or die from many diseases not because of the lack of activity of the immune system, but because of the never-ending or excessive activity of the immune system, as with all chronic inflammation and autoimmune diseases. This is where our immune system derails, because it is not limited again. Humans acquire this ability to regulate in the first few years of life by dealing with their own intestinal flora, especially in the upper part of the large intestine.
The higher self knows that it owes itself to the world. The question of you is the question of gratitude. The higher ego is pure world interest and openness to the world.
We have a gastrointestinal tract in which, from the mouth onwards, things only go forward. Then it goes through the small intestine, which sorts out what we can use from our food. But only higher animals develop a further stage of digestion, the large intestine, in which our bacterial flora, our microbiome, develops. Here the food pulp is rhythmically pushed back and forth. In the large intestine we accumulate the substance that we can no longer digest and still keep in us. The strongest impetus for developing the human brain comes from this large intestine. What happens there? We organically review what we have taken in from the world.
In doing so, we give space to other life, the microbial life within us. It depends very much on our diet how it nourishes the intestinal flora, how this foreign life can develop in us and form substances that decisively promote the development of the brain and the immune system. In the large intestine, a substantial basis for conscious personality development arises in the earthly realm. But digestion and intestinal flora are also of crucial importance for our immune system, a system that is extraordinarily capable of learning in the unconscious and is open to the environment. Within the first three years of life, the individual composition of our intestinal flora stabilizes – every antibiotic during this time has particularly lasting effects on this process, which should be therapeutically balanced.
The profound importance of sleep for the brain and immune system shows how our rhythm of life influences these organs and thus the possibility of our bodily ego presence. It also has an organic effect whether we do a conscious daily review or not. Looking back is there to consciously ‘digest’ what we have experienced so that we can hand it over to the night. It’s a moment of transition to detach from the day-to-day business, to look back at it without consciously judging it. The judgment comes in the night from other beings who are called to it and at the same time give us the strength to make something positive out of it.
Health and I – a creative performance
It is interesting that our ego always reveals itself in activity, in its ‘performance’. In doing so, it is dependent on the care of others, which creates the social framework in order to live through disease processes and thus to increase the inner, body-creating, preserving, transforming activity. What we call illness is an inner degradation and rebuilding. The most important maturation processes of the immune system take place in the disease. Without going through acute illnesses, our immune system cannot develop. Such illnesses are an exercise for the immune system – as long as it is not overwhelmed and medicine has to try to restore the possibility of recovery through external interventions. Illness processes can, however, also trigger essential psychological maturation processes if they are well attended to.
When talking about the immune system and personality development, we can ask ourselves what health actually is. In the definition of Dutch colleague Machteld Huber, it is the ability to direct and adapt oneself. Health not as the absence of illness, not as well-being, but as ‘creative performance’ – and that is the characteristic of the ego. The I as a being is something performative. In his last major work, Also a History of Philosophy, Jürgen Habermas emphasizes this performative dimension of the you and thus the I. Health is the question: To what extent can this personality, this I, orientate and adapt in this life in terms of physical-physical, physical-vital, physical-emotional, physical-spiritual create and develop from within? It’s about moving out of yourself.
We know how easily the human ego wants to encapsulate itself. It thinks, it imagines, it plans, expects many things based on models it has designed itself. The higher ego, as described by Rudolf Steiner, is cosmopolitan, cosmopolitan. It knows it owes the world a debt. The question of you is the question of gratitude. The self-centered ego experiences itself as centric, in extreme cases as egocentric. The higher ego is pure world interest and openness to the world. It’s the social, you-able I. Wolfgang Schad pointed out the parallel between this understanding of the I and the organ of the placenta. From her we can learn a great deal about how the ego can fruitfully place itself in the world.
In embryonic development we find on the one hand the formation of biological inner spaces in the unborn child, on the other hand the peripheral attention through the universal embryonic covering organs: egg skin, umbilical cord and especially the placenta, which also consists of child tissue. Thus the human organization before birth presents itself in an intensive way as in the construction of one’s own bodily self. It forms a more complete bodily nature for both human gestures than we obviously find in us after birth. In the embryo we can see physically what we cannot become physically but spiritually after birth. And we can rethink our concept of health. We are not healthier by trying to save our private health. Those who try to save their private health will lose it – and those who give their health for the health of others will keep it. Our personality and our immune system develop most healthily through a healthy relationship to the world.
From this way of looking at things, a natural science can develop, as Goethe tried to initiate, a natural science that is based on the human ego in its dialogical-corporeal relationship to the world with its entire experience and thereby includes the researcher himself with his entire experience. Such a natural science itself opens the bridge to the moral, as Goethe tried to do in his color theory. Finally, from this we can also understand an essential aspect of religious life. Religio means reconnection, and the embryo is physically reconnected to a ‘higher life’ in a unique way. We could also define religion as long-term knowledge and ability to care for the living. We cannot make life; we owe it to life. Religion as a freely arising practice of grateful reference to the source of our life in all its physical, mental and spiritual fullness can connect our ego in a unique way with the origin of our life in its physical, mental and spiritual dimension. If we remember Hegel, Schelling and Hölderlin in their best thoughts, we can experience and practice the trinity of art, science and religion in us as care of the soul, spirit and life.