Mind: It's Not All In Your Head

 By: Bea Armstrong
A scientific and philosophical rent that has existed for nearly 400 years is now being resewn. The idea that the body and the mind are separate entities is a descendant of philosopher Rene Descartes' work and resulted, among other things, in a modern world split between physiology and psychology. Doctors treated the body; psychologists the mind. There was always some doubt among both camps of the validity of this split, but the medical community especially quickly debunked any of their own who went public with such doubts.

But how then to explain such things as a positive attitude and its positive effect on the healing process? Or negative experiences, such as the chronic strep throat of a patient who was also an incest survivor and was intimidated from talking about her abuse? Do our thoughts and feelings affect our health? What some psychologists have long observed, science is now giving us a physical explanation for... and turning our beliefs about the "location" of the mind literally upside down.

Do you think the mind is in the brain and therefore in the head? Wait until you hear about the research of Dr. Candace Pert, formerly Chief of the Section on Brain Biochemistry of the Clinical Neuroscience Branch at the National Institute of Mental Health. Pert discovered the opiate receptor and many other peptide receptors in the brain and in the body, which led to an understanding of the chemicals that travel between mind and body.

In an interview with Bill Moyers for his book "Healing and the Mind," Pert said that initially she thought that by studying the brain, she would learn about the mind and consciousness. "So for most of my early research, I concentrated from the neck up. But the astounding revelation is that... endorphins and other chemicals like them are found not just in the brain, but in the immune system, the endocrine system, and throughout the body... Information is flowing. These molecules are being released from one place, they're diffusing all over the body, and they're tickling the receptors that are on the surface of every cell in your body."

In other words, the mind/brain doesn't just sit in the head, making decisions, and commanding the body to carry them out. The "stuff" of the brain is located on every cell of the body ... like hyperlinks to other body cells. Perhaps the original information superhighway! And there's more. Everything in our bodies is being run by messenger molecules, many of which are peptides, which are made up of amino acids, the building blocks of proteins, Pert said. "We have come to theorize that these neuropeptides and their receptors are the biochemical correlates of emotions. We've actually found the material manifestation of emotions in these peptides and their receptors." Emotions are thus not just mental or physical, but a bridge between them, she said.

"Emotions can be in the physical realm, where we're talking about molecules whose molecular weight I can tell you, and whose sequences I can write as formulas. And there's another realm that we experience that's not under the purview of science. There are aspects of mind that have qualities that seem to be outside of matter. Let me give you an example. People with multiple personalities sometimes have extremely clear physical symptoms that vary with each personality. One personality can be allergic to cats while another is not. One personality can be diabetic and another not.

"If you accept the premise that the mind is not just in the brain but that the mind is a part of a communication network throughout the brain and body, then you can start to see how physiology can affect mental functioning on a moment-to-moment, hour-by-hour, day-to-day basis ..."

How exactly can this affect our health?

Another researcher, Dr. Margaret Kemeny, assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at UCLA, is studying the relationship between psychology and the HIV virus. Kemeny has been exploring whether short-term emotional changes, such as feeling sad or happy for 20 minutes, affect the immune system. Kemeny found that when such a feeling was experienced, there was an increase in the number of natural killer cells in the person's bloodstream, and that they were functioning more effectively than when the person was in a neutral state. Killer cells help fight disease. They are our first line of defense against invading organisms.

Surprisingly, though, Kemeny found that the "effect of the happy state on the immune system was very similar to what we had seen as a result of the sad state." Thus feeling anything, for a short-term, seems to have a positive affect on our immune system. "I think the implication is that there may be a way to use psychological tools and interventions to alter our emotional state in ways that would have positive effects on our immune system... for example, group therapy."

This changes how we see the interaction of emotions, our immune system, and our health. "Now there's a... perspective ... which is that the immune system is part of the fight-or-flight response, and that when you're running away from an animal in the jungle, and you're falling over branches, or whatever, you need a mechanism that will increase the functioning of the first-line-of-defense cells, such as natural killer cells. That way, if you get bitten, or you get a cut, and organisms get into your system, your immune system would be ready to respond and deal with those infections right away."

But just like a heart that can get weakened under constant stress, so too the immune system. Living with fear day after day, month after month, can deplete the mechanisms that pump these killer cells into your bloodstream. Thus depression, chronic anxiety, etc., can wear down our immune systems.

"There is fairly good data, although it's not consistent, that people who've lost their spouses are at increased risk for dying themselves over the 6 months to one year after the loss of their spouse. Hypothetically, that's because many of them are experiencing a depression... That depression then may lead to biological changes that make them more vulnerable to heart attacks and other kinds of diseases," Kemeny said. She has found that men whose partners died of AIDS did show changes in the immune system after the death of their partners, which suggest that the immune system may be becoming impaired.

Kemeny, Pert, and others acknowledge that research on mind-body interactions is only in its infancy. It will be fascinating to observe the growth of this discipline.
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