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Where Do Mind and Body Meet?

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Modern philosophy began with Descartes. According his philosophy, the mind and body belong to two separate metaphysical realms and they meet in a tiny organ in the brain, the pineal gland. There are other thinkers who believe in the unity of body and mind, contrary to Descartes’s dualism. This monistic view has either an idealistic version, considering that everything, including the physical matter, is essentially mental in nature; or a materialistic reading which assumes that everything, even the mental phenomena, is basically material in origin. Idealism is the monism of mind and materialism is the monism of body. 

However, from a practical standpoint, the situation is not that difficult. Adherents of any of these schools cannot deny that mind and body, single or dual, have enormous interactions. Either in health or disease, mind and body extensively impact on each other. 

Research has shown that mental exercise, even without physical activity, may improve the performance on motor skills. Some investigations reveal that even thinking about lifting a heavy object increases the electrical current in the corresponding muscles. Activities like meditation may surprisingly increase the thickness of the grey matter. Mind and body, either of the same fabric or not, work as one unit. Human beings are mind-body complexes.

Mind affects the body not only in health but also in diseases. We know that anxiety, depression, and adverse social and economic status may pave the way to coronary artery disease. Depression may turn an acute low back pain into a  chronic one. Emotions, beliefs, expectations, socioeconomic level of life and cultural background can influence the course of any type of chronic pain.

Many investigations show the impact of psychological and social factors in the incidence and prognosis of cancers. Skin problems, allergies like asthma, functional gastrointestinal disorders and many sexual dysfunctions have all strong roots in the patient’s mental status. 

How does the mind affect the body? Not all mechanisms are still known. Investigations on stress response show its dual mental-bodily nature. A stressor is anything that our minds appraise as threatening. Therefore, the stress response, with its vast array of chemicals, hormones and molecules, seems to be one mechanism through which mind impacts the body. So is our immune system. The young science of psychoneuroimmunology investigates how our mind affects our immune system and in this way can have widespread influence over our bodily functions. 

The mind-body relationship gives us a new tool in treatment too. With the advent of psychoanalysis at the beginning of the 20th century, groups of physicians and psychologists began to work on the impact of psyche over soma, which led to the birth of an exciting field called psychosomatic medicine.  The emphasis of psychosomatic medicine is on the ways that mental phenomena may influence the disease course. It uses psychological interventions to help patients with physical conditions. 

Psychosomatic medicine has a cousin, which is more popular among ordinary people, and that is the mind-body medicine. The two are based on the same premises; however, psychosomatic medicine uses somewhat conventional psychological treatments while mind-body medicine uses modalities, which for now, belong to the field of complementary medicine. Mind-body medicine relies more on techniques like relaxation therapy, biofeedback, meditation, yoga and hypnotherapy to help physical disorders through mental interventions. 

Many reliable clinical trials are available showing the positive impact of some of these mind-body methods. They have shown promising results in pain control, reducing chemotherapy side effects, helping cardiovascular diseases, treating insomnia, accelerating healing after surgery, control of IBS, allergic disorders and skin problems . In cancer patients, they have been useful in improving the quality of life and mood and even in some cases increasing the survival.

It is not far-fetched to assume that eventually, psychosomatic and mind-body medicine will unite into one discipline and become established in the mainstream of modern medicine. George Engel, in the seventies, called the humans as biopsychosocial units. Today, in the 21st century, the mind is starting to find its rightful spot in the treatment of the body; although there is still a long way to go.

Saba Hoda is a physician with a longtime experience of working as a pathologist, both teaching medical students and running a medical laboratory.

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