Part 1. of ‘The Mind Matters’ was published here recently. It discussed some examples and ideas about mind being a powerful force in healing, even of physical diseases. The essay continues with Part 2., here:
For over 50 years there has been emerging a field of medical work now labeled as ‘Mind-body medicine’. It includes most of the treatment interventions that are largely undertaken by the patient’s efforts, rather than being done by a doctor for the patient. We can also talk about ‘Lifestyle medicine’ and ‘Self-help healthcare’.
Mind-body medicine includes any psychological interventions that can change a patient’s attitude and expectations; for example, things that can shift one from gloominess and depression to hope and optimism. It also includes lifestyle interventions like exercise and nutrition since these can only be driven by the determination of the patient.
Is there any science underpinning Mind-body medicine’s methods? Over the same period of decades there has emerged a research field sometimes known as psychoneuroimmunology, or PNI. The name tells it all. Psycho (the mind), Neuro (the nervous system that receives and sends messages all over the body), immunology (our immune system, or inbuilt disease fighting mechanisms).
PNI research has shown that most kinds of white blood cells, the immune system cells that fight disease, have receptors for neurotransmitters all over them. In fact the brain and the immune system are constantly ‘talking’ to each other with the communication being bi-directional. If the term psychoneuroimmunology wasn’t already too long it should include ‘endocrine’ as well, for our glands and hormones too play a part in this communication network.
Various kinds of emotional stress and depressed mental states have been shown to be linked to low numbers and low activity of many of the immune system cell types. Our minds, it seems can make our bodies succumb to or fight disease.
So, what of Norman Cousins, editor of New York’s Saturday Review, who laughed himself out of pain and into recovery from severe ankylosing spondilitis? He later wrote Anatomy of an Illness (1979) and other books. Is there an explanation for his recovery?
Biological research on laughter and humour have shown interesting health effects. “Mirthful laughter” has been shown to produce significant reductions in the levels of circulating stress hormones. A study of breast-feeding mothers showed that humour could increase the level of certain antibodies in the mother and her breast milk, as well as reduce the amount of urinary tract infections.
In Mr Cousin’s case he was convinced that he recovered as a result largely of laughter, induced by watching Marx Brothers films, and also taking very large doses of vitamin C. He checked himself out of the hospital and into a nearby hotel room so that he could still be seen by his doctor, but not have to endure the obstruction of some hospital staff to these ‘unproven’ therapies.
As with Ian Gawler’s story, we see someone using a range of self-directed methods; or rather, methods that can be the product of a physician-patient partnership, with the patient’s input being important.
Norman Cousins went on to be an Adjunct Professor at the medical school of UCLA, studying and teaching on the ‘biochemistry of human emotions’ and the role of the patient in medicine. In Anatomy of an Illness he wrote:
“I have learned never to underestimate the capacity of the human mind and body to regenerate – even when prospects seem most wretched. The life force may be the least understood force on earth.”
Part 2. ENDS here
[Part 3. the final part of this series, will be published on this “posts” page soon]