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The mind/body connection

There has been an interesting discussion about complementary and alternative medicine between bloggers Lynn and #1 Dinosaur. One thing I’d like to point out in this discussion is why the mind/body connection is not alternative medicine. By alternative medicine, I mean therapies that patients pursue that have little to no scientific backing.

It is not because doctors or scientists become suddenly open minded that a therapy which was previously alternative medicine becomes accepted and part of conventional medicine. It is because the scientific testing they conducted about that therapy backed it up. So when something like biofeedback turns out to be effective in certain situations, it is part of the scientific process that it becomes accepted for those situations.

Applying those therapies to illnesses for which they are inappropriate and/or not proven puts the practice right back in the ring of non-evidence based or alternative therapies.

Lynn said that because biofeedback, hypnotherapy, and guided imagery were mind/body phenomena, this meant that they were automatically alternative. I believe that part of her definition of alternative is that it addresses the spiritual. The culturally known triune of mind/body/spirit links mind/body to spirit in many people’s thinking. Under that influence, anything that would be mind/body would also be spiritual. Another interpretation of mind/body that could give it a special meaning is the ‘mind over matter’ theme which is sometimes thought of in telekinetic terms: the mind can manipulate matter without any physical connection to it.

So let’s put those two interpretations of mind/body aside and concentrate on the tested and observed connections.

The brain is connected to the body via the nervous system and through chemical messengers such as hormones and endorphins. This is a two way street: the brain sends signals to the body, and the body both replies and sends information to the brain.

So, for instance, a person wants their muscle to relax, they send a signal and it relaxes. If there is nervousness or anxiety in them so they don’t feel psychologically comfortable enough to let down their physical guard, to stop being ready at any moment for fight or flight, then they have a difficulty sending the signal to the muscle to relax. The problem is not in the body, but in the mind. So when the mind is reassured, then it can send the signal to the body so the muscle can relax. There is smooth muscle (along digestive track, contracts and when relaxed dilates blood vessels, etc) which is not under direct conscious control, but under control of the autonomic nervous system. But that part of the brain is under the influence of our conscious brain. When we are consciously stressed, the autonomic nervous system doesn’t know why. It just responds. Our blood pressure rises, our heart beats faster and we breath faster. We tense up, ready for action, even if there is no physical action that can help. Again, if we reassure our conscious brain that all is well, then the autonomic nervous system responds as well, bringing our body back into rest mode. 

So these mind/body therapies: hypnotherapy, guided imagery, biofeedback, are all just different methods of helping the mind relax and send signals to the body that all is well. There are a lot of interesting things that are occurring here, but none of them are magic.

The ways in which this can help in medicine are both far reaching and limited. Being relaxed and at peace can help healing by encouraging a resting state where good blood flow reaches extremities and compromised areas, and oxygen and nutrients are utilized for rebuilding rather than reserved for possible survival reaction (stress: fight or flight). There may also be a reduction in stress hormones that have long term damaging effects. The added benefit is that the patient feels subjectively better and may require less pharmaceutical intervention for pain relief.

But this is as far as those therapies go, in regard to physical healing. There are no energy fields at work, manipulating the matter.

Psychological healing is a different kind of thing, but again – no energy fields magically change a person’s thought processes. Just ask God.

As for Reiki, I would say it is probably like a physically enforced guided imagery. The patient has to have some belief in that particular story to work, as I imagine (I’m hardly an expert) that the imagery that works best is different for every individual. There is no physical healing going on that couldn’t be achieved by some other relaxing method. Any psychological healing occurring is more likely to be due to the human interaction involved in the therapy than any hand movement.

One other thing to understand is that feelings of tingling or warmth during Reiki can easily be attributed to the ‘guided physical imagery’ we are experiencing. Just like we can see an image in our minds (like a memory, or a picture we are painting that doesn’t yet exist) we can ‘feel’ a sensation in our minds. That experience seems less imaginary to us because we have an existing physical reference, our body, that is sending real signals at the same time. There is also a hyperawareness of the area that is being worked on. To further muddy the situation, when a subject in a study is recalling their experience, their memories are influenced by their personal beliefs.

The mind/body connection is real. It is scientifically backed up. But it is not proof of the spiritual, of alternative medicine, or anything that requires magical thinking in order to work.

 

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8 comments

  1. One thing I’d like to point out in this discussion is why the mind/body connection is not alternative medicine. By alternative medicine, I mean therapies that patients pursue that have little to no scientific backing.
    Really? What about guided imagery? This is classified as being alternative medicine. Remember, “alternative” means treatments that you use instead of standard ones. Guided imagery is based on the concept that your body and mind are connected. Biofeedback, also classified as “alternative,” works on the same exact principal. The mind is the catalyst in affecting physical changes within the body – such as blood pressure and stress.

    It is not because doctors or scientists become suddenly open minded that a therapy which was previously alternative medicine becomes accepted and part of conventional medicine. It is because the scientific testing they conducted about that therapy backed it up. So when something like biofeedback turns out to be effective in certain situations, it is part of the scientific process that it becomes accepted for those situations.
    True to a point. The reason these modalities have been tested and deemed effective is because these methods were the least disgusting. Ten, fifteen years ago, this was not the case. I’d also like to add that biofeedback and guided imagery are not always effective. That isn’t to say they aren’t viable – they most certainly are. But I submit that they are also the least “out there,” and satisfy scientists’ comfort levels. Don’t kid yourself; bias is plays a vital role in what alternative methods are given the green light. Bias plays a very important role in what medicines are looked at as well.

    Lynn said that because biofeedback, hypnotherapy, and guided imagery were mind/body phenomena, this meant that they were automatically alternative.
    No, you’ve twisted my words. I said very simply that biofeedback, hypnotherapy, and guided imagery is alterative medicine. This was said in part as a response to my dismay that docs now consider these healing modalities to be a part of mainstream medicine. While happy to see this, I asked exactly who in the medical community deemed this as mainstream medicine because I’ve spoken with many docs that would argue those modalities are anything but mainstream.

    I believe that part of her definition of alternative is that it addresses the spiritual.
    And this belief/assumptions comes from where? Nowhere did you ever see me make reference to the spiritual being tied up with alternative medicine. That’s an outright lie.

    The culturally known triune of mind/body/spirit links mind/body to spirit in many people’s thinking. Under that influence, anything that would be mind/body would also be spiritual.
    This is what happens when people who don’t know anything about alternative medicine get into trouble. Mind/body/spirit has nothing to do with the spiritual in the dogmatic sense. We’re not talking about God, but of our inner spirit, that inner voice/knowing. Our conscience, if you will.

    Another interpretation of mind/body that could give it a special meaning is the ‘mind over matter’ theme which is sometimes thought of in telekinetic terms: the mind can manipulate matter without any physical connection to it.
    No, this is incorrect. Mind over matter is biofeedback and guided imagery. You’re manipulating your brain to change your heart rate, your blood pressure, or release stress. The Mind/Body connection, as I’ve explained before, is the recognition that the mind and body work in unison to create wellness and illness. The two concepts are entirely different.

    So these mind/body therapies: hypnotherapy, guided imagery, biofeedback, are all just different methods of helping the mind relax and send signals to the body that all is well. There are a lot of interesting things that are occurring here, but none of them are magic.

    You’re missing a key piece of the puzzle; the willingness of the patient. While these modalities are highly effective, they still require the acceptance of the patient to “buy into” the notion that these will work. I’ve seen plenty of times where guided imagery failed to work. It’s not the modality that’s flawed, but the patient’s willingness to accept this as helpful. They wanted the pill, plain and simple, and no amount of alternative methods are going to change that person’s mind. So, to a degree, yes, it is magic.

    As for Reiki, I would say it is probably like a physically enforced guided imagery.
    This is not at all true. Where did you get this idea? If you’d really like to do your homework, here is a very good site: http://danesparza.com/

    The patient has to have some belief in that particular story to work, as I imagine (I’m hardly an expert) that the imagery that works best is different for every individual.
    Ami, you’ve admitted that you’re not an expert, so is it a good idea to base your opinions based on assumptions? You should research your subject before you speak on it with any authority. Guided imagery play zero part with Reiki. The patient doesn’t need to have any belief in Reiki. In fact, no one was more skeptical of it than I. But it was part of my research for my novel, and I decided I needed to try it in order to write about it. What I felt and the surprising changes in my health was very real, even though I thought it was a bunch of crap at the time.

    There is no physical healing going on that couldn’t be achieved by some other relaxing method.
    Again, you know this how? If you were educated in alternative medicine there is no way you’d ever make that claim. Interestingly enough, the scientific verification of Reiki is about as elusive as they are with guided imagery. But one has a comfort zone with docs, and the other feels more like Birkenstock voodoo. It wasn’t that many years ago that guided imagery was part of that Birkenstock voodoo category.

    Any psychological healing occurring is more likely to be due to the human interaction involved in the therapy than any hand movement.
    You are injecting fact based on nothing more than our biased opinion, which is hardly compelling. Again, do your homework. Unless your intention is to deceive and inflame, that is.

    One other thing to understand is that feelings of tingling or warmth during Reiki can easily be attributed to the ‘guided physical imagery’ we are experiencing.
    Honestly, where are you getting your information? Guided imagery requires the therapist to guide the patient through a series of suggested thoughts in order to attain an intended outcome. With Reiki, there is no talking and there is no intended outcome. The energy goes where it needs to, and the practitioner is merely the facilitator. We don’t “manipulate” anything.

    Look, I don’t have a problem with anyone who dislikes alternative medicine. I’m used to it. But it just strikes me as odd that anyone would denigrate something using assumptions and half-truths as their allies. Don’t you think the truth is far more compelling?

  2. Wonderful post, Ami; you are dead on. Don’t worry about Lynn twisting your words (or complaining about your twisting hers); she does that to me all the time.

    There’s a thread over on Respectful Insolence about reclaiming the linguistic high ground from CAM proponents by coming up with a term other than “CAM.” I like the term “faith based treatments” (both in the sense that you need to have faith in them, and because they’re based on religious paradigms of pre-scientific societies) so much that I’ll be posting about it next week.

  3. I like the term “faith based treatments” (both in the sense that you need to have faith in them, and because they’re based on religious paradigms of pre-scientific societies)
    Dino, if you can prove to me that alternatives are faith based and have religious foundations, I’ll gladly stand on the table and sing “I’m A Little Teapot” with olives in my navel. You do not need to have faith in these modalities for them to work. I’ve said it time and time again. No one was a bigger skeptic than I. But you don’t want to hear about that. Additionally, you have failed to address any of my questions or comments, instead reverting to your usual mantra without offering a shred of proof – like your mistaken insistence that alternative healing options are faith-based. What a crock.

    Given that, it appears you would rather surround yourselves with like-minded people who stick their fingers in their ears and sing, “Lalalala.” Talking to a brick wall is about as exciting as a tax audit, so I’ll leave you to it.

  4. Thanks, Dino 🙂

    Hey Lynn,

    I have had a chance to glimpse your website. What I read there does make it sound religious. But I’ll go ahead and address that later. I have a deadline to meet with two projects right now. And kids.

    “The reason these modalities have been tested and deemed effective is because these methods were the least disgusting. Ten, fifteen years ago, this was not the case.”

    You have assumed here that because of an emotional response, scientists and doctors didn’t even test them. To some extent that may be true. And the bias you speak of is simply explained.

    When the underlying hypothesis of a method has no scientific evidence to back it up, scientists are less likely to actually take it to the next step. I would say this is true of Reiki. Reiki claims spiritual energy manipulation. No such energy has ever been observed other than subjective experience. This subjective experience can be explained by interactive human imagination.

    Except that they did end up testing it. Especially once the idea that simply relaxing had scientifically proven benefits. It usually takes about 10 to 15 years for a consensus that a therapy works. Why? several years for a ‘discovery’ process, at least a couple years for a good study, several years for follow up studies that confirm. If the evidence isn’t clear, if there are some studies that confirm and some that deny, it takes even longer to come to a consensus.

    You are right that mind/body therapies aren’t always effective, and you are right about why. It depends on the patient’s actual participation and, if they did fully participate and it was effective in relaxing, if it would actually be a help whatever problem they are trying to address. For instance, relaxation is not likely to help the immune system stop attacking the body in autoimmune disorders.

    It isn’t that I don’t ‘like’ non-standard therapies. It is that I’ve seen people be taken in by them, and paying out lots of money. Most practitioners of such therapies at some point claim miraculous cures for disease processes they have no idea about and give false hope. When they are dealing with chronic, degenerative conditions patients are likely to become depressed. When, especially in the early stages, doctors can’t diagnose and then sometimes react badly to the patients because of this, patients may turn to non-standard therapies. They pay a lot of money they can’t afford. This is harmful. They feel better for a few days or weeks or months, because the practitioner is sympathetic, and has some odd explanation. Just ‘knowing’ can alleviate depression and this can help in the short term. Once another flare up causes their condition to worsen again, or maybe they run out of money or both, they realize it wasn’t a cure.

    I’ve seen this. Multiple modalities utilized in an attempt to find something that would help.

    Reiki is just another one of those.

  5. [I]t appears you would rather surround yourselves with like-minded people who stick their fingers in their ears and sing, “Lalalala.” Talking to a brick wall is about as exciting as a tax audit, so I’ll leave you to it.

    Can you say “projection“?

  6. Lynn: If you can prove to me that alternatives are faith based and have religious foundations, I’ll gladly stand on the table and sing “I’m A Little Teapot” with olives in my navel.

    From Reiki.org:

    The word Reiki is made of two Japanese words – Rei which means “God’s Wisdom or the Higher Power” and Ki which is “life force energy”. So Reiki is actually “spiritually guided life force energy.”

    Also:

    “Reiki is a simple, natural and safe method of spiritual healing and self-improvement that everyone can use.”

    Copied off their FAQ page, under “What is Reiki?”

    Watch your head; that chandelier is awfully low. Do you want green or black olives?

  7. There is a simple understanding in psychology that states “correlation does not equal causation”. I am not going to stick my head into something, Reiki, that I know nothing about, or any other “alternative” methods. But it seems that there is not enough credit given to the power of the brain. There are so many unconcious thoughts that are constantly milling around our brains. I believe there is always a hope, a desire (or faith) for something to work. This is most likely why, in some scientific studies, the placebo pill can have the same effects as the real pill. Going into any treatment voluntarily, a patient has some hope, though it may be consciously unrecognized. I have had experience with hypnotherapy and it did work for myself as well as others I know, some of whom were extremely surprised (but delighted). There were others that it did not work with. I think Ami is on to something…if you take the principle that correlation does not equal causation, then just because hypnotherapy seems to work, perhaps it is not necessarily the cause of the success. If the brain is able to relax and “reprogram” thoughts, then of course hypnotherapy can be correlated with the success of the patient. But is it the cause? Hmmm…other methods can have the same output probably depending on which treatment someone “hopes” will work (the faith-based idea). Again, I am not educated at all in these matters so I am not trying to convince anyone, but it is something interesting to think about- thanks for an interesting discussion.

  8. I’m fascinated by such a diverse range of views and opinions. Who’s your “go to” guy?

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