Evidence of a Mind-Body Connection

This article originally appeared on the Support4Change website, and is reposted here.

The ancient idea that attitudes play a vital part in the recovery process is finding systematic verification in current medical research. . . There is little doubt about the fact that fear is a great accelerator of disease. Conversely, hope, faith, confidence and the will to live set an auspicious stage for efforts toward recovery.     — Norman Cousins, Former Editor, Saturday Review of Literature

One of the most fascinating observations of the mind-body correlation was first noticed more than a decade ago. Some multiple personalities who were allergic to strawberries or exhibited symptoms of insulin-dependent diabetes when expressing one personality did not have those physical problems when in another personality state — entirely different reactions within the same body! Read More

Doing Something Half-assed is Better Than Not At All

July 14, 2014
 A life lived only by the well, or a life worth living?

Kitchen Table Wisdom by Rachel Naomi Remen, MD — one of the earliest pioneers in the mind/body health field — includes a short chapter titled “Life is For the Well.”

Here she tells about one of her patients who had Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and spent several years seeking help for her symptoms. She would go from doctor of doctor “obsessed with the minutest details of her physical problems, which she tracked in a daily journal.” She thought she had to be without symptoms to enjoy life to go the theater, to have children, to love.

It seemed to her that life could only be lived by the well.
Read More

How Mind and Body Communicate

January 31, 2013
Using brain science to explain the mind-body connection.


Books on my shelfBooks on My Shelf
From time to time I will give you excerpts and recommendations for books I have enjoyed very much. Some are serious, others light reading. Some are still in print, others not so but still worth getting from the library. Or, they can be ideas to add to your holiday shopping list.
If you buy these books using the links in the post, you can help support the upkeep of the Support4Change website and blog. Even if you aren’t planning on buying them, I still think you will enjoy reading the excerpts and my thoughts on these excellent books.

Today I am pleased to bring you an excerpt from The Body Has a Mind of Its Own: How Body Maps in Your Brain Help You Do (Almost) Everything Better.

If you’ve ever wondered how the mind and body communicate, here is an explanation from two talented writers. Sandra Blakeslee is a regular contributor to The New York Times, specializing in the brain sciences, and is the third generation in a family of science writers.

Matthew Blakeslee is a freelance science writer in Los Angeles. He represents the fourth generation of Blakeslee science writers.

So the piece you are about to read has a lot of experience behind it.


What does it mean to have an embodied mind? Can this insight help you in your everyday life?

Absolutely. But to understand how, you need to sit back for a moment and think about how your body and mind communicate. Your body is more than a meat vehicle for your mind to cruise around in. Your mind isn’t like a self-contained puppet master sitting deep inside your brain pulling the marionette strings of your body’s muscles. It may surprise you to learn just how much of a two-way street the mind-body connection really is, and how big a role your body plays in your mind’s health and functioning.

Your body sends two major kinds of input to your brain. One of these information streams arises from receptors in your skin, joints, muscles, tendons and bones. These signals feed into maps of your body which your brain uses to pilot your body through its daily interaction with the outside world.

Your body also bombards your brain with signals from receptors embedded throughout your intestines, heart, lungs and other organs and tissues about temperature, pain, itch, tickle, sensual touch, and other “interoceptive” sensations. These signals feed into a set of visceral maps in a brain region called the insula, a fascinating area which neuroscientists have only begun to explore. One of the insula’s most basic functions is to bring visceral sensation and emotion into your conscious awareness. In so doing, your higher-level cognition exercises some sway over your basic physiological functions such as breathing, arousal, and responses to pain or discomfort.

The two-way mind-body conversation, which the insula mediates, is crucial for achieving, maintaining and restoring balance in the way your body expends or conserves energy (what biologists call homeostasis). These feedback loops keep mind and body attuned. When you are healthy, your mind and body are in equilibrium. But if your mind and body are thrown out of balance, you may be tortured by inexplicable muscle aches, back pain, nausea, bloating, dizziness, fatigue or pain in abdomen, stomach, chest, joints, or pelvis, and a host of other miserable sensations.

Of course sometimes you feel sick because of an objectively verifiable cause. Maybe you caught a virus or bacterial infection. Maybe you tore a tendon or broke an arm. Numerous acute and chronic disease have clearly known causes that Western medicine can combat with drugs, surgery, physical therapy and the like.

But other times you feel sick and there is no explanation as to why. You visit doctor after doctor but no one can find anything wrong with you. You are told you may have fibromyalgia, or chronic fatigue syndrome, or irritable bowel syndrome, but no underlying pathology presents itself. Frustrated, you eventually seek alternative or complementary treatments – healing touch, yoga, acupuncture, hypnosis, reflexology, or any of dozens of other practices. And mercifully, with a little bit of luck and perseverance, you get better.

If you don’t or can’t fully subscribe to the mystical explanations offered by the masters of these traditions, how can you come to terms with the fact that in many cases they do actually, demonstrably, blessedly, work on afflictions about which Western medicine has nothing whatsoever to say beyond labeling it a “syndrome” of some sort and prescribing the proverbial two aspirins?

One reason is that many of these techniques involve bringing conscious attention to bear on breath, heartbeat and internal sensation. Doing this helps restore balance between mind and body by inducing changes, called plasticity, in your body maps. Certain forms of meditation can lead to measurable increases in the thickness and metabolic vigor of the right frontal insula, with concurrent improvements in physiological self-regulation, pain perception, emotional well-being and immune function.

Another reason alternative medical techniques are effective has to do with the power of beliefs. You don’t have to go as far as advocates of The Secret to appreciate the power belief can have. The brain is fundamentally a prediction-generation machine, animated by an almost insatiable drive to seek explanations for everything it perceives and meaning in everything it does. It is a system of staggering complexity in which almost every component is connected to every other component by just one or two removes. Beliefs, opinions and expectations constantly zip up and down the brain’s many layers of processing, which sometimes lead to spectacular misapprehensions and ill-health, but other times lead to amazing insights and healing.

Alternative and complementary medical treatments work extremely well because they relax you and because you believe in them. Unlike the like the external “objective” senses (sight, hearing, touch, etc.), pain is an internal “subjective” sense. Perceiving pain is less like seeing color or feeling a texture and more like an internally generated opinion on the state of the body. Your beliefs, held in mind, can exert powerful effects on your body (and vice versa). In many cases your beliefs can make you well. And they can make you sick.

Beliefs can even kill. In the Caribbean, many people believe in voodoo. When a witch doctor puts them under a curse, they sicken and die.

Hypochondria stems from the fact that people show great variability in how they interpret signals from the body. A small discomfort can be ignored or it can be magnified. It drives physicians crazy. Between a quarter to a half of all patients seeking treatment cannot be helped by conventional medicine.

The so-called somatoform disorders are disorders in the perception of bodily signals. All your body parts send sensory signals to the brain. Most are filtered out at a low level of processing, but sometimes peripheral sensations get through the filter and rise to the level consciousness even though they have no real bearing on your body’s current needs. Again, some people interpret these signal as meaningless and ignore them; but others interpret them as having pathological significance and amplify them through constant attention and worry – like a perverse inversion of the meditation process, perhaps. Through belief itself, free-floating, random, meaningless sensation can be turned into chronic suffering.

In some people, researchers have found that innate immune cells called cytokines – the kind that make you feel sick – can be activated without a pathogen present. Emotions trigger the sickness response instead of disease.

Brain imaging studies reveal that these misinterpreted sensations are not imaginary. Parts of the brain that map the state of the body show real changes in activation to unfiltered information. Pain can alter the body schema. A hypochondriac’s body maps are abnormal.

So-called hysterical conversion disorder is even more dramatic. This is where an emotional conflict or stress mimics neurological disease. People become paralyzed, blind, deaf, mute or have seizures, with no typical injury to the brain. One to three percent of hospital patients have some sort of conversion disorder.

The ancient Greeks in their wisdom believed that such patients had a displaced uterus (“hysterikos”), whence we inherit terms like “hysteria” and “hysterical conversion.” Sigmund Freud pinned conversion to sexual abuse and childhood trauma. But scientists today trace it to genuine changes in how the brain maps the body. For example, the brains of people with hysterical paralysis show underactivity in two brain maps involved in movement. When their symptoms improve naturally over time, the affected regions return to normal.

Beliefs also can make you well. When a person wearing a white coat and a stethoscope hands you a blue pill and tells you it will calm you down, chances are it will, even though the pill is made of an inert substance. Placebos, as such medications are known, can be potent medicine. When people suffering from painful knee arthritis underwent sham surgery – meaning the surgeon cut the skin open but only pretended to scrape the inside of the knee – they got better. When Parkinson’s patients thought they had received brain implants designed to alleviate their symptoms – but instead got a surgical incision but no treatment – they improved. Placebo painkillers and antidepressants are notoriously effective in treating disorders of mind and body.

Acupuncture, on the other hand, alleviates pain better than a placebo. Recent studies show that real acupuncture, using needles, activates the insula and anterior cingulate. Sham acupuncture, in which needles appear to be inserted but are not, works nearly as well as the real thing. This may be because when you expect a medical treatment to work, your body releases painkilling substances and your brain releases extra dopamine, a brain chemical associated with pleasure and reward.

So if you fall ill someday and your physician can find nothing organically wrong with you, sit back for a moment and think about your emotional state. What is worrying you? Then think about the feelings that arise from your body. Can you bring those feelings and emotions into a calm center of your whole body? Can you guide your attention to the state of your body? By doing so, you may induce the kind of healing response described by ancient traditions and that modern science is just starting to understand.

Copyright 2007, Reprinted with permission

For more information on the book, The Body Has a Mind of Its Own: How Body Maps in Your Brain Help You Do (Almost) Everything Better, visit http://www.thebodyhasamindofitsown.com


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Viewing Time as an Ocean

September 5, 2011
Wouldn’t floating in the ocean feel more relaxing than rushing to catch a train?

Boat on a quiet ocean near New ZealandThis year has been filled with more trips than I usually take (five so far) and with each one I try to follow the standard I set back on March 14 in Maintaining Sanity While Preparing for a Trip. Haven’t always done that as well as I would like, but that’s definitely my plan this week as I get ready for two weeks in Europe starting next Wednesday.

As I approach my list of  “wouldn’t it be nice if I could also ______ before I leave, ” I am thinking of a recent blog post by David Spero called The Ocean of Time. In it he considers the very nature of time itself as a way to counter our tendency to squeeze more plans into less time than we have to do them.

First, he reminds us that we usually think of time as a “rushing river, or a speeding train,” perhaps the “bullet train that we have to chase and catch or risk being left behind, or run over.  Then the next day we will have to chase the train down and catch it again.”

He then reminds us that a farmer watches the seasons go by and recognizes that as the seasons change, he will have a change to do something next year. Finally, David suggests that we might change our idea of time if we “imagine time as a lake, or a still sea:

“And you can float on it, you can splash around in it…  You have centuries of time to the right of you, and centuries of time on your left.  And ages of time behind you, that got you to where you are, and ages of time in front of you.

“You still have things to do.  But now you have all the time you could ever want, or ever need, or ever use.  An ocean of time, spreading out in all directions to eternity.  No way to be left behind, no way to be left out, no time limits to expire…it goes on forever.”

Of course, he points out, “if you spend your whole life in the ocean of time, you will miss some appointments.  But if you spend your whole life on the bullet train of time, you get to the end far too fast, and you will miss most of the scenery along the way.”

I am trying to follow his advice and first do what must be done (like packing, which I will begin today). Then whatever time is left may or may not include writing “evergreen” posts for while I am gone.

Incidentally, I learned the term evergreen this week in a column by Meghan Daum of the Los Angeles Times. She said that “evergreen is journalist lingo for a topic that, like its namesake, is always in season (or, at least, one that won’t go stale immediately).”

Would like to find time to do a number of posts so you have material to read on the blog, but if I don’t, I hope you enjoy what you find here. And if this is my only post for September, just remember that I am floating in the ocean of time and enjoying myself immensely.


Did you enjoy this post?
Here are a some related posts from this blog, and articles from the Support4Change website:


Putting Too Much Pressure on Our Bodies

June 10, 2010
Here is an example of how, in the stress of over-burdened lives, even if self-imposed, our bodies need a break.

Husband relaxing in the poppy fieldDuring the middle of the night on Tuesday, as I lay there for several hours watching a stream of consciousness that passed for a disjointed conversation with some kind of semi-intelligent being, I flashed back on a bout with a strange disorder I had almost ten years ago. It is called Guillain–Barré Syndrome (GBS) and is rare, affecting only 1 or 2 out of 100,000 people. Definitely a step above the common flu or cold.

If you look it up in Wikipedia, you’ll see that it is an autoimmune disorder affecting the peripheral nervous system. What happens is that initially the body works to get rid of foreign antigens caused by an infection somewhere in the body. So far, so good. That’s what the immune system is designed to do.

Unfortunately, instead of shutting down when the infection is over, the body goes into autopilot and starts attacking something else — you. Bummer. Specifically, it goes after myelin, an important part of nerve tissue. The result is weakness, generally beginning in the lower limbs and . . . well, if you really want to know the gory details, you can read all about it in Wikipedia.

I only mention it here because I thought I was having a relapse, though not nearly as bad as I had in 2000. And I’m writing this to tell you that in the middle of Tuesday night I remembered something about the dreams I had when I was in the hospital with GBS. Every night I had disturbing dreams, the closest to nightmares I had had in a long time. Climb a mountain with no end. Discover all my relatives were coming to dinner in fifteen minutes. Take care of a client who wouldn’t leave the office. Watch a huge wave rushing toward my house.

Analyzing this later, I realized the dreams pointed to how I was living my life; always feeling I had to do more. I had to reach for that 110% that perfectionists insist is average. Couldn’t stop with good enough. Couldn’t take time off.

Then, during the middle of my stream-of-consciousness routine, I realized that I still feel pressure to do more than is required. I may call myself a “recovering perfectionist” and write posts about perfectionism, but I still tend to put more on my plate than I can chew.

Consequently, when I got out of bed yesterday morning, wanting to go right back, I thought about self-imposed pressure. What did I feel I had to do that didn’t need to be done and could be eliminated? For crying out loud, I will be 75 years old on Friday. What in the world is wrong with taking two days off a week? If I can’t give myself permission to do it now, when will I?

So I began by thinking about writing this post. Did I really have to do this? No. I haven’t made any promises to do it, and besides, I imagine the sun will rise and set, and your life will continue if you come here on Wednesday, June 9, and don’t find a new post.

Now is is Thursday. Didn’t get more than the part above done yesterday. And I think a bottle of pick-me-up pills would go down well right about now. But the best medicine is probably just letting up the pressure on me so my body can heal itself.

By the way, that picture is of my husband lying in a poppy field this spring while I was busy taking pictures. Now he knows how to relax!