Misunderstanding Mind & Body
For forty years, I have been reading books and articles on how the “mind has
limitless powers to heal.” Books, magazine articles and television reports
recycle old material often presenting the same old stuff as new exciting
discoveries. Forty years ago these ideas were more appealing to me and I pursued
them in my professional and personal life. But they have become irrelevant
fantasies and obstacles to understanding mind-body interactions. Ideas about the
healing mind involve a set of misunderstandings, fantasy and human narcissism
which leads people to claim more ability and more control than they actually
Life is difficult, and you can argue that a little fantasy and narcissism
offers solace to people who might otherwise despair. I was browsing popular
magazines in the local library and choose one example from a Canadian magazine
directed to women. I am not citing the article because it is a generic
repetition of similar articles published in many magazines. The article begins
with a story of a woman who had a breast cancer removed and survived 20 years
without a recurrence. Long term survivors of cancer are expected in the normal
distribution of cancer outcomes. This survivor claims that positive thinking and
meditation were responsible for her survival. This is a narcissistic claim that
gives the survivor and her audience a feeling of security that cannot be
substantiated. The article does not mention other women who practiced positive
thinking and meditation who died of their cancers. They are more numerous than
I advocate positive thinking and meditation but do not expect these
strategies to cure diseases such as cancer. Cancers are abnormal growths of
cells that have mutated genes and fail to respond to the usual controls over
cell behavior and replication. Cell mutations are deeply imbedded in an ancient
matrix of life determinants that cannot be easily altered. Some cancers do not
progress because the mutated cells are not aggressive and may be destroyed by
defenses that routinely destroy abnormal cells.
The survivors are lucky, not superior beings with superior mental abilities.
The article talks about ‘using the mind to change body chemistry.” The problem
with this talk is that there is no understanding of how body-mind works. You
live inside your mind. It is incorrect to claim that you can use your mind as if
you were outside of mind. It is more correct to state that your mind can use
you. Since you are inside your mind, you experience a monitor image of your body
that shrinks and expands in your consciousness, depending on what is going on
inside. The connection between body and mind is the brain. The brain is the
organ of the mind.
To be completely correct, we have to admit that brain is inside the mind. To
speak pragmatically, we have to join bodybrainmind into the whole entity that it
is. We can claim that body events are brain events are mind events.
The chemistry of bodybrainmind is implicit in mind. Every action, every
reaction of bodybrainmind involves changes in the way the whole system works.
Many of these changes can be understood in terms of physiology, chemistry and
genetics. This is not news. Exercise, for example, changes bodybrainmind and
some of these changes are beneficial. Women who exercise regularly have a lower
incidence of breast cancer and depression; they tend to be both healthier and
more successful in life endeavors. The human bodybrainmind evolved in natural
environments where exercise was mandatory and physical fitness had survival
value. In contrast, the modern woman who eats too much and exercises too little
gains weight and may become anxious and depressed. She may develop many
diseases, including breast cancer. She is not a survivor until she returns to
the habits of her ancient ancestors. When she eats less food, changes food
selection to fruits and vegetables and works physically everyday, she thinks,
feels and acts better. At the same time, she decreases her risk of developing a
I have met people who practiced yoga and meditation and tried their best to
think positively, but they ate too much food, exercised too little and developed
food-related diseases. They failed to achieve the biological requirements for
long-term health. While it may be true that meditation is a superb method of
studying your own consciousness and can lower blood pressure, reduce heart rate
and generate a feeling of well-being, all the benefits can be reversed quickly –
just drink some coffee, eat the wrong food and drive home through traffic.
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Understanding the human brain is essential to become a well-informed, modern
Stephen Gislason MD, the author of
the Human Brain, is a physician-writer who is good at making complex subjects more
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