We sit up here in our heads, from our lofty vantage point, solving a multitude of problems on a daily basis, and almost without thinking, expect our bodies to do as told.
We expect this so strongly that when illness strikes, there is a sense of betrayal, a mutiny against us. Even normal aging surprises many of us, because we are still doing cartwheels in our mind.
Yet for having spent every second with our bodies, we still find it surprising when science shows us our thoughts physically affect our well-being.
An intriguing NPR story regarding asthma had me thinking about the concept of the “ghost in the machine” that was introduced by British philosopher Gilbert Ryle’s description of Rene Descartes’ mind-body dualism in his book – The Concept of the Mind.
You may know asthma has been dramatically increasing in this country for the last 30 years. The exact cause of this is debated: not enough dirt exposure during childhood, sensitivity to environmental toxins, immune dysfunction. We’re still working on the answers.
But the illness itself we understand and are reasonably good at treating. The essential pathology is abnormal inflammation in the airways. This causes them to go into spasm at the least provocation. Medications like inhaled steroids reduce airway inflammation while bronchodilators like albuterol are related to adrenalin, and open airways in spasm.
A normal study paradigm on asthma might involve the ability of certain odors to trigger an asthma attack. This study went further and looked at the ability of the idea of an odor to precipitate an attack.
The study involved a group of asthma patients that were as alike as possible. To one group they presented a smell with the warning it sometimes triggers asthma attacks. A second group was told that the odor was from a rainforest sample.
Neither group knew the real truth: the smell was totally harmless. The rainforest group had no reaction to the smell and no change in lung pathology. The other group had measurable increase in inflammation in their lungs to the idea they would smell a possible asthma trigger. And their inflammation persisted for more than 24 hours.
This was quite surprising to the medical community, but probably less surprising to the rest of the country.
The mind-body connection has been a mainstay of Eastern medicine for centuries. In fairness to Western medicine, our science-based treatments are pretty successful. But being chained to science also has a cost, because it blinds us to the possibility that thoughts and ideas sometimes have the power to heal.
There is a laundry list of diseases of the body where we now know the mind plays a part.
Coronary vascular disease – the number 1 killer in this country – we thought was all about heredity and control of blood pressure and cholesterol. But then someone figured out Type A personality, and the head became involved.
Various kinds of cancer show mental imagery influences the effectiveness of the treatment. The mind can dramatically increase the acid in your stomach. Learning Yoga reduces blood pressure.
The list, of course, goes on and on.
We are not the ghost in the machine. Our body is an extension and expression of who we are.
Of course, our mental processes impact our health. A reasoned and balanced approach to illness would fully utilize the science-based tool (antibiotics …) and begin a dialogue with your body and make sure your goals are clear.
Donald Bucklin, MD (Dr. B) is a Regional Medical Director for U.S. HealthWorks and has been practicing clinical occupational medicine for more than 25 years. Dr. B. works in our Scottsdale, Arizona clinic.
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