There has been an interesting discussion aboutÂ complementary and alternative medicineÂ between bloggers Lynn andÂ #1 Dinosaur. One thing Iâ€™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 peopleâ€™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 â€˜mind over matterâ€™ theme which is sometimes thought of in telekinetic terms: the mind can manipulate matter without any physical connection to it.
So letâ€™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 donâ€™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 doesnâ€™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.Â
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 â€“ no energy fields magically change a personâ€™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 (Iâ€™m hardly an expert) that the imagery that works best is different for every individual. There is no physical healing going on that couldnâ€™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 â€˜guided physical imageryâ€™ we are experiencing. Just like we can see an image in our minds (like a memory, or a picture we are painting that doesnâ€™t yet exist) we can â€˜feelâ€™ 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.