Woo-Woo or Sound Science – The Mind-Body Connection

“It’s a bunch of mumbo-jumbo hocus pocus.” This was said by my colleague about myofascial release therapy: a treatment considered to be “alternative.” Whether or not the treatment is effective is a topic for another blog. What struck me was my colleague’s certainty that there was no validity to the treatment when in actuality there was a fair amount of evidence to suggest it was a viable option. So where did this skeptical view come from?

While all therapies that fall under the umbrella of complimentary and alternative medicine, or CAM, vary greatly from one another in their origin, mechanism, and success rates for healing, there is one common thread that seems to exist throughout all CAM practices. It is the acknowledgement of the mind-body connection. Oh wait a minute! I didn’t know that’s where this article was going! Stay with me here…

Here is a mini experiment you can try to demonstrate to yourself the presence of the mind-body connection. Raise your arm. You thought about it, and then your arm physically went up in the air. An oversimplification? Ok, try this experiment. Pick up a book of erotica, read a chapter, and notice the physical changes in your body. You don’t really have to read erotica, but if you’re blushing at the suggestion of it, you’ve still proven my point. What about when you watch a scary movie and the killer alien jumps out unexpectedly causing you to feel terrified? Did your heart rate increase? Did you feel that jolt of adrenaline throughout your body? My friends, that is the mind-body connection. You experienced a thought or emotion and it resulted in a physical change in the body. Not so woo-woo, huh?

So why is there such skepticism about the existence of this seemingly illusive mind-body connection if it’s such a natural thing? It’s because of a French philosopher named Rene Descartes (1596-1650). Mr. “I think therefore I am.” Descartes reasoned that the body, a material thing made of matter, was different and therefore separate from the mind, a nonmaterial thing. Descartes had a mechanistic view of the body and believed it functioned only according to laws of matter supporting his idea that the mind and body were separate. This became known as the philosophy of “dualism” with the operative word being philosophy. This was not originally presented as scientific fact. It was simply an idea that made sense to Descartes and apparently to a lot of other people too. Soon after Descartes’ death came the “Age of Enlightenment” (1685-1815) and the introduction of the scientific method. The process of the scientific method was a boon for better understanding the physical world beyond religious dogma or unsubstantiated beliefs. Functioning under the philosophical belief of dualism, scientists could study the physical nature of the body without accounting for the influence of thoughts or emotions from the mind. It simply wasn’t seen as being a source of concrete or mechanistic influence. Dualism made it easier to understand the workings of the body if people’s pesky thoughts and emotions weren’t muddying data results.

Examining the body separate from the mind seemed to be working just fine until curious and unexplainable things started happening such as the placebo effect. A placebo is any fake treatment given to patients in medical studies with the intention that the fake treatment would not work as compared to the “real” treatment and would allow for scientists to better assess the effectiveness of the real treatment. Placebos aren’t suppose to work, but in some patients, they do! Some will interpret the placebo effect as being attributed to some unknown cause and then shrug their shoulders while turning a double-blind eye to it (research joke). But others consider the placebo effect to be evidence of the mind’s influence over the body’s ability to heal. Cool!

Ok mind-body connection with your fancy-shmancy placebo effect. If you’re real, prove it! Sure, I can raise my arm when I think of it, and I might get a little sweaty when I watch a scary movie, but that doesn’t explain the mechanism behind the mind-body connection. How do you really work? Enter neuroscientist and brilliantly cool chic, Candace Pert. She was a research professor in the department of physiology and biophysics at Georgetown University Medical Center in Washington, D.C. where she discovered the opiate receptor, the cellular binding site for neurotransmitters called endorphins. Huh? Stay with me. I’ll explain. She had experienced a fall off of a horse that landed her in the hospital and on her back for several weeks. While in the hospital she was given Talwin, a morphine-like drug, for pain. She not only experienced a decrease in pain but also an increase in certain emotional sensations. She felt euphoric and joyful on the border of ecstasy. When she wasn’t blissing-out, she was contemplating why it was that a chemical like morphine could produce such a strong sense of emotion. She knew that if her body responded to morphine it was because her cells had little things on the outside of them that interacted with the drug. These “little things” are called receptors and they were more than happy to intermingle with morphine. Yay! She wondered why her body had the ability to react with morphine when it wasn’t a naturally occurring substance in the body. This led her to the conclusion that there must be some other chemical that did originate in the body and was intended to connect with those very same receptors as the morphine. She made it her life’s work to find that chemical and the binding receptor. What she discovered was the opiate receptor, which binds to a naturally occurring morphine-like neurotransmitter called endorphin. Neurotransmitters enable neurons in the body to “talk” to one another, and endorphins are released when the body experiences pain or other stressful experiences. Endorphins not only inhibit the sensation of pain, but they increase a sense of euphoria. Pert later referred to endorphins, and other neurotransmitters like it, as the “molecules of emotion.” And so began an interest to better understand how an immaterial thing like an emotion could have a physical representation like a neurotransmitter.

The implications of these molecules of emotions are far reaching. Do all emotions have chemical representations? What is the effect of these chemicals on the health and wellness of the body? Is there a relationship between what I think and feel and how healthy my body is? Can I use my understanding of thoughts and emotions to heal my body when I am sick? This is some wicked cool stuff, people!

So stay open to the idea of the mind-body connection. It really isn’t that woo-woo of an idea after all. You are more than just a mechanistic being. You are an amazing creation with the ability to have your thoughts and feelings interact with the body in mind-blowing ways. And if you ever want to test your mind-body connection, then contemplate this quote from Buddhist Zen master, Thich Nhat Hanh, “Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy.”

What do you think? Is the mind-body connection woo-woo or sound science? What makes you question if it is a real thing? Have you ever experienced evidence of the mind-body connection in your own life? Post your thoughts below.

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This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Very interesting subject matter. After the Buddhist quote, I thought of the song “Smile”, Judy Garland sang that contained a line, “smile, though your heart is breaking…”. There is a study somewhere that says if you force yourself to laugh, even if you don’t feel like laughing, it will may you feel better. And that a deep belly laugh is very good for you. My father, when trying to get an effective dose for a drug (titrating), would assess the current effect and, if positive, cut the dosage in half. It was often just as effective and with fewer side effects. Drugs that effect the mind often have bizarre physical effects, and conversely, if you get a physical problem it may effect your mind. Very complex subject.

    1. True, Nathan, it is a very complex subject. I think that complexity adds to the evidence of the mind body connection. I believe there is a yoga practice that involves intentional laughing. I suspect it is intended to muster up those “feel good” chemicals. Thanks for the comment! ~E

  2. This blog really gets you thinking about the mind – body connection differently and scientifically.

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