by Tim Brunson, PhD
The power of the mind over the body is a feel-good cliché referred to by self-help gurus and alternative health care authorities. However, does this have merit – and especially scientific credibility? Or, is this merely idealist hogwash?
Hard-nosed scientific medical authorities and other skeptics have a hard time believing that suggestion and imagination can have any effect over the healing process. Even though there seems to be a general acceptance that chronic stress does have long-term medical implications, beyond that many cannot fathom the possibility that how you think will have anything to do the ability for cells and organs to return to a healthy state.
Nevertheless, these short-sighted presumptions have increasingly been challenged. And, this has not come from outside of established medical institutions, but within. In the early few years of the last decade there were a couple of studies performed at the Harvard Medical School. The first involved the use of guided imagery in conjunction with surgical wound healing. What was indicated was that when hypnosis was used in conjunction with standard, allopathic medical care, wounds healed on average 70% more rapidly. These findings were later replicated in a bone healing study performed by the same institution. Likewise, there have been several studies involving such topics as changes in immune cells in the intestines as well as other mind/body healing accomplishments. Although some say that these studies are inconclusive and require more validation, considering the increasing number of such studies with similar results it should be fairly obvious that there is a strong possibility that the use of one's imagination will affect health.
What is missing in all of these studies is an explanation as to why thoughts affect physical healing. When addressing this, the first thing that I point out is what we have learned from studying amputees who have experienced what is called the Phantom Limb Syndrome." In those cases, a person who has lost an arm or leg complains about itching or pain being experienced in the missing limb. This is due to the fact that the brain contains a map of every part of the body. In this case, the map has not adjusted to match the change in the territory. Thus, this establishes the fact that there is a map-territory relationship between the brain and the body. Generally, when the territory changes, we expect that the map on which it is recorded will alter. When a limb is removed, one should expect that the associated neural pathways in the parietal lobes and association cortices should change. In the case of the Phantom Limb Syndrome, this reaction has not yet occurred.
When attempting to understand the power of imagination to change the body we again go back to the map-territory concept. However, this time it is in reverse. We must instead look at it as the territory-map. When the neural networks associated with the body's organization change, then the alteration of the brain's map influences how the corresponding part or parts of the body functions. This is not as outlandish as one may think. For instance, consider what happens when a person has an embarrassing perception or thought. Blushing, which is a physiological response, occurs. Also, when a person correctly or incorrectly perceives a potentially threatening item or event, there is an increased sense of anxiety, which has a very pronounced physical manifestation as heart rate increases, blood flow shifts to major muscle groups and away from hands and feet, and breathing intensifies. In short, we are quite aware that our thoughts will cause the body to react to our thought patterns.
Let's now take this a step further. Biofeedback technicians readily accept that when a person imagines that their hands are warming, their instruments will quickly detect a noticeable difference in skin temperature. However, what if a person is choosing to do what is called sight-specific healing as was done in the Harvard Medical School studies. In that case, for instance, a person would visualize that a nasty blister on their hand had already returned to a healed state. This means that the brain's map of that part of the body was reorganizing to reflect desired condition. As the communication between the brain and body involves a two-way, bi-directional information flow, it appears that the tendency of our body to receive organizational instructions from the brain can create a situation in which there is a desire for the specific site to reorganize to meet the expectations. This is what I believe explains the phenomena experienced in all mind/body research. Again, when the territory changes the map changes; when the map changes the territory changes.
Is has been almost a decade since a group of medical doctors approached me to question the scientific validity of hypnosis. That led me to research the scientific literature in order to find such proof. While what I found concerning hypnosis is no where as voluminous as that involving cancer or heart disease, the over 11,000 research articles, which I located, clearly pointed in the direction of supporting the medical use of hypnosis. Just about every one of them expressed the positive impact of the mind over the body. While they also constantly reiterated the need for more research (after all, who can believe 11,000 studies), there seemed to be a universal concern that there was no widely accepted theory to explain why hypnosis was almost always effective. (Note: Most of these research projects were conducted by scientists with very limited hypnosis training and who had tremendous misconceptions about the field. And, there are a large number of non-medically trained hypnotists who have been consistently able to conduct sessions in which somatic healing and/or significant symptom reduction has occurred. My conclusion is that even poorly conducted hypnosis is extremely effective. This underlines the power of hypnosis in medical situations.)
My map-territory/territory-map theory of mind/body healing is a logical extension of the body of thought, which I call the Neurology of Suggestion. In turn, this is supported by not only the wide-range of studies referred to previously, but synoptically by ideas presented recently by the neuroscience and theoretical physics communities. It seems that there is much more to human nature than medical science realizes. As we continue to increase the workings of the human brain and how it relates to our body, and begin applying the more esoteric scientific theories to our health, then just maybe we will not only fully understand how the brain and body collaborate, but also we will be able to develop less risky alternatives to the side-effect ridden interventions in modern medical practices.