Sunday, September 16, 2007

The Mind's Influence on Health

Topics dealt with in my novel keep coming up in the news! Another news story this week concerns a new study demonstrating the mind's influence on the body: Lonely? Watch Your Health, Reuters, September 13, 2007. "What this study shows is that the biological impact of social isolation reaches down into some of our most basic internal processes -- the activity of our genes.... We have known for years that there is this epidemiological relationship between social support -- how many friends and family members you have around you -- and a whole bunch of physical outcomes."

In the past few decades there has been an immense amount of research showing that physical health is strongly influenced by the mind. The first area in which this was demonstrated, initially through studies with rats, was the immune system, and the science of psychoneuroimmunology is by now well established. But the various functions of the body are not as separate as they were once thought to be, and it is being found that the mind affects virtually all of them. Psychological stress is not the only cause of illness -- genetic predisposition and environmental factors contribute, and in some cases predominate. But it is becoming evident that it plays a major role, especially in diseases that develop over a long period of time.

There is not the slightest doubt about this among researchers who have investigated it. However, it has yet to be accepted by the majority of medical practitioners (although more and more institutions are giving at least token attention to what's generally called mind-body medicine). In part, this is simply the result of resistance to change: it is contrary to what doctors were taught in medical school. Moreover, many are unaware that the physical mechanisms by which the mind affects the body are being discovered, and scientists are never willing to accept the existence of phenomena for which no known mechanism can account; thus they assume that claims for involvement of the mind imply some sort of vague mystical effect which they are understandably reluctant to acknowledge. But I think there is also a deeper reason why most doctors -- and for that matter, most patients -- don't want to believe that that health is dependent on the mind. If they believed that it is, they would have to admit that there is not a lot they can do to eliminate chronic illness. They would be forced to recognize that much of what they do is at best ineffective and at worst, may be harmful. Almost all doctors want to help people. Their lives would be in ruins if they allowed themselves to suspect that they can't.

This is a serious problem, and it's going to get worse as the evidence for the mind's influence on health builds up, because we do not, at present, have any way to overcome stress-based illness. Stress is part of life, and our physiological reactions to it are normal; so far we cannot alter them enough to prevent long-term damage to our bodies. There are countless practitioners now offering supposed treatments -- "stress reduction" techniques, nutritional strategies, lifestyle advice, and so forth -- but these help only people in whom they activate the mind's innate healing power (a power which is often dismissed as "the placebo effect" with an implication that it's somehow not of value).

This is even more true of the various forms of alternative medicine, which make fine statements about the importance of mental attitude and the dangers of drugs and surgery, yet advocate modes of treatment that are physically-based and therefore effective only as metaphors. In my opinion, existing theories of psychology are no better. And so I think there is going to be a reaction against mind-body medicine when it becomes apparent that however valid its explanation for illness may be, it does not often work in practice. That's the basis on which I've assumed, in Stewards of the Flame, that in the distant future today's knowledge still won't have been incorporated into standard medicine, and that dogmatic reliance on physical modes of treatment will actually have increased -- except among a small minority with the vision to move toward a solution we of the 21st century lack the means to implement.

For a long list of books dealing with mind-body medicine plus many links to articles and a video, visit and click through to the "background information" link near the bottom of the main page.

1 comment:

Fengshui Ruang Tamu said...

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