How the Mind and Body Communicate
Thirty years ago scientists were not asking how the mind and body communicate. In Medicine, mind and body were believed to be quite separate. The earliest inkling of a connection arose in the field of psychosomatic medicine, which held that the mind played a critical role in some illnesses. Using peptic ulcer disease as a model, the first well thought-out theory believed there are three triggers of the illness:
1) A genetic predisposition to peptic ulcer,
2) An unresolved emotional conflict, generally from childhood, that lay dormant in the subconscious mind, until…
3) The individual found himself in a situation that reactivated the emotional conflict, but from which he felt trapped and helpless. Thus, the emotional conflict surfaced and expressed itself in the form of an ulcer. Psychiatrist, Dr. Sidney Margolin at the University of Colorado did this research in the late 1960's.
By 1992, the National Institutes of Health had created a Division of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, and there was a sub-division called the “Mind-Body Division.” In 1993, the first White House meeting on Alternative Medicine was held. Much has changed in thirty years. There is no longer any question about the existence of the mind-body connection, but there is ample room for speculation about how it works.
Healthcare practitioners became aware that certain mental practices, such as meditation, were positively affecting a number of physical parameters, such as blood pressure and heart rate. Those working on the body discovered (or they may have known this for thousands of years) that physical practices, such as yoga, positively affected mental state, mood, and stress levels.
But “how” do mind and body “talk” to each other? That is the question to be addressed in this article. Without knowing it, I was beginning to address this issue while in college. I came up with one aspect of the mind-body connection that I believe is still valid today. I had been studying bio-psychology with a focus on the limbic system, the part of the brain involved with memory and emotion.
It occurred to me, in looking at the anatomy of the brain that the pituitary gland serves as a gate. An individual might be filled with raw emotion, unresolved conflict, or any matter of emotional pain, but if the “pituitary gate” remains closed, the body will not suffer the negative effects of the mind. Those people with a “closed pituitary gate” are much more likely to suffer emotionally when under emotional stress.
Others have an open pituitary gate, which means that, when the individual is stressed or overly emotional, nerve signals reach the pituitary, which then signals the hypothalamus to release a number of hormones into the bloodstream. One of the most important hormones released by the hypothalamus is ACTH (adrenocorticotrophin hormone). ACTH causes the adrenal glands to start releasing large quantities of cortisol and adrenalin. This is not a good thing. The hypothalamus produces hormones that activate every organ in the endocrine system, including the thyroid.
6 Ways Mind & Body Communicate
1. The Pituitary Gate is one mechanism by which mind affects body.
2. The Nervous System
The body is constantly sending sensory signals to the brain (central nervous system), and the brain is immediately responding by sending signals back down the spinal cord and nerves to keep the original input stable. For example, you step on a thorn; a signal reaches your brain, and fires a signal back down your leg to get off the thorn. What we are talking about now is within the realm of how the brain (a part of the body) affects the rest of the body.
The autonomic nervous system (ANS), with its sympathetic and parasympathetic components, has been considered an involuntary, unconscious part of the nervous system. The ANS regulates heart rate, blood pressure, breath rate, intestinal motility and dozens of important functions that are critical to life.
In the 1960's, as the “turned-on generation” turned to the East and began to study Indian yogis, they discovered that people with elevated consciousness have voluntary control over the ANS. Yogis can voluntarily change their blood pressure and heart rate. In other words, what was once believed to be a completely involuntary part of our nervous system can, in fact, be trained and modified by the mind. Timothy Leary wanted to see how much LSD his guru could take before he would have the experiences that everyday folk were having. What happened was surprising. Nothing happened. No matter how much LSD Leary gave one particular guru, there were no mental or physical changes whatsoever.
The study of yogis points to a clear distinction between “mind” and “consciousness.” Psychotropic drugs, including hallucinogens, act on the mind. A yogi or rishi is someone who, through great spiritual practice, has raised his or her consciousness to such a “high” level, that they are operating from the level of pure consciousness and not from the level of mind. In other words, the mind is really still part of the body. If a drug can affect the mind, then the mind is not different from the body. It is just a different expression of the body.
We also know, from the writings of various saints, that at a certain point in their spiritual evolution, almost all physical problems disappear. This is obviously temporary, as everyone dies of something eventually.
It is important to try to understand the distinction between mind, the brain, consciousness, and the body. Science will never find consciousness or the mind in the brain. The best way to think of the brain is to consider it as a tuner of consciousness. The brain is not unlike your television, with all its technical complexity. You can tear a television apart, wire-by-wire, computer-chip-by-computer-chip, and you won't find a picture or hear words or music. That's because the television is a tuner that is capable of receiving and decoding messages sent through wires or through the air. Similarly, it is useful to consider that the brain is a tuner for mind and consciousness.
We will never find consciousness within the brain, any more than we will find a picture within an unplugged television set. This idea is borne out by those who have had a near-death-experience (NDE). Even though they may have been pronounced clinically brain dead, these individuals report having been quite alive — while dead. “They” simply were not in their bodies, which then begs the question, “Who is in the body, if one can feel more whole and complete while out of the body?” The answer is that consciousness is our central identity. Throughout life, the brain serves as a phenomenal receiving device for mind and consciousness. People who have had an NDE, including an experience of the Light, no longer fear death. They have had the experience that they are not the body, and so fear of losing the body no longer has any importance. The radical change of consciousness associated with an NDE can permanently alter an individual's electrical field. Twenty-five percent of those who survived an NDE can never again wear watches. Their watches stop or become unpredictable. So, we know that a radical shift in consciousness can alter the mind-body connection by changing the electro-magnetic properties of the entire person.
In order to understand the mind-body connection, it is necessary to struggle with these questions and look at the issues from a number of viewpoints, since any one viewpoint is just our opinion from that viewpoint, including all of my viewpoints and opinions.
Vedanta, the philosophical foundation of East Indian religions, states that the soul or atma is the core of our being, and is surrounded by five layers or sheaths, like layers of an onion. The outermost sheath is the physical body, which can be thought of as the densest form of energy. The 2 nd layer is the “Vital Energy Sheath.” Vital Energy is the same as “prana” or “chi.” More about chi in a moment. The 3 rd sheath is the mind.
Now, let's back up to understand the outer three sheaths. The Vital Energy Sheath lies between the body and the mind. Acupuncture works on the Vital Energy Sheath, by re-directing the flow of chi or energy through channels or meridians. The acupuncturist, through pulse reading, knows how much energy a person has, where there is too much energy, and where energy is blocked. The acupuncture needles help re-direct chi, opening energy blockages. Health is considered to be a state in which there is a steady, even flow of chi without obstruction or stagnation. Homeopathy also works on the Vital Energy Sheath. Because chi connects mind and body, it is critical to the understanding of, “How mind affects body, and body affects mind.”
The 4th sheath is the Wisdom Sheath and it is involved with the intellect and high levels of discrimination. The part of us we call “The Witness” resides in the 4 th and 5 th sheaths. Our intellect can watch our thoughts. So “Who” is doing the watching? The “Who” watching the mind is the “Witness,” which resides in the Wisdom Sheath. I realize one could get impeached for splitting hairs and using language in this way.
The 5th sheath is the Bliss Sheath and it is responsible for our experience of joy, happiness, and bliss. When we get something we really want, we temporarily experience great happiness. That happiness appears to be coming from outside ourselves, but it is really causing us to experience our own Bliss Sheath. The Bliss Sheath is like the moon. It is the layer surrounding the soul, which is pure Light, and so, it too, is radiant.
Who we think we are depends on which of the five sheaths (and the soul) we identify with. When we realize we “are not” the body, it is as if we have peeled away the outer layer of the onion. When we peel away our identification until we realize we are, at the very least, the Intellect, it is as if we have removed clouds that have been obstructing the sun. It is our identification and attachment to the body, energy, mind (and personality) that prevents us from experiencing joy all the time. The advanced yogi or enlightened being does not need to receive something from the outside to experience joy, for he or she exists in a state of joy all the time. He is not different from you or me. He has simply stopped thinking he IS the mind and body.
3. Language of Receptor Sites
In order to dive back into the physical, molecular level, it is important to have a broad and wide perspective of the total human being. Dr. Candace Pert was at the forefront of the science of receptor sites. She discovered the endorphin receptor site, which set off an explosion of research into receptor sites. Every cell in our body is covered with receptor sites, which are like lotuses floating on the surface of a lake (the cell membrane being the lake).
Of particular interest to the question this article addresses are receptor sites in the nervous system and immune system. Every cell in our immune system, such as white blood cells, natural killer cells, and phagocytes, have receptor sites not only for immune modulators, such as cytokines. Each immune system cell also has receptor sites for every neurotransmitter, such as serotonin and norepinephrine. What this means is that the immune system is a floating nervous system (to paraphrase Dr. Pert).
A receptor site is activated when a peptide, or short chain of amino acids, enters (or binds to) the receptor site. Once that happens, then a host of chemical reactions takes place within the cell. This is how the body works.
We now have a much more complete way of understanding how the mind affects the body for better or worse. First, the brain regulates the cells of our body through nerves and their electrical impulses. Second, the brain opens the Pituitary Gate, causing a cascade of hormones to be released. All hormones are made up of amino acids. Sex hormones and steroids are made up of amino acids and essential fatty acids. Hormones work by interacting with receptor sites.
Third, the nervous system pours a variety of neurotransmitters directly into the bloodstream, which interact with the receptor sites of immune system cells. In this way, you can quickly understand how strong emotion, unresolved conflict, or stress can quickly translate into a weakened immune system. Everyone knows that when they are really stressed, they are more likely to catch a cold or the flu. Now you know why. You get sick partially because your brain is sending neurotransmitters to talk to your immune system cells. It's not a pretty conversation.
The reverse is also true. Every neuron, or nerve cell, has receptor sites not only for neurotransmitters, but also for all the chemicals produced by white blood cells and other parts of the immune system. So when your immune system is weakened, your brain is quickly affected, and you can become depressed “because” you have a weakened immune system.
Now you understand why, in holistic medicine, it is essential to look at the nervous system and immune system at the same time. They are almost inseparable. To repeat myself, “The immune system is a floating nervous system.”
4. The Power of Thought
Each of the five sheaths can be looked at as an energy field. The physical body is the densest form of energy. To a physicist, the physical body is nothing but an electron cloud that is trying to hold it together. Chi is more subtle energy, and the mind's energy is even more subtle. Technically speaking, “energy” is probably the wrong word to use regarding the mind. The four identified energies (gravity, electromagnetic, strong nuclear, and weak nuclear) all dissipate over time and space. The effects of thought do not dissipate over time and distance. For now, we are in a quandary as to the correct word to use regarding the power of thought.
The movie, “What the Bleep Are We Here For,” discussed the important fact that each thought triggers the release of a specific molecule. These molecules are chains of amino acids, which are the building blocks of life. So one way in which thought affects the physical body is through the production of “thought-peptides,” which work by interacting with receptor sites.
We also know that mind is non-local. It is not confined by time or space. A single thought can shoot straight down to your big toe . . . or to the other side of the world. At this level of the mind-body connection, it becomes much more difficult for me to provide linear, logical explanations of how thought affects body chemistry or even DNA. Thought does not require carrier systems like nerves, immune cells, and receptor sites. Thought is capable of bypassing the normal ways that the body communicates. The “energy” of thought might be interacting with similar energy fields at a cellular level.
5. The Language of Mental Imagery
If you want a skin wart to go away, talking to the wart or thinking about it won't help. But visualizing the wart growing smaller and then disappearing does work. Imagery is the language that allows your mind to talk directly to your body. This is the language your body will listen and respond to. Visualizing yourself well is the simplest example of healing imagery, but you need to be warned that this practice is superficial. The language of imagery is infinite, and the field of clinical guided mental imagery is so well established that it is one of three Alternative therapies that Blue Shield of California will pay for. The other two are acupuncture and chiropractic. My point is that, if you do not recover after visualizing yourself as being healthy, please understand that the exercise you have just done is lightweight. It is a good starting point for getting your mind and body to talk to each other. Just understand that you can go very deep with mental imagery. For people I see in my practice for a host of problems, at the end of the first session, I write down my mental imagery plan for the individual. That plan starts with a simple Mental Fitness Program, and then goes very deep.
6. Consciousness Heals
Consciousness and Mind are different. The mind is made up of thoughts and desires. Consciousness, which is not different from “Awareness,” is devoid of all thought. Consciousness stands still. It just IS. It is the core of our being, the inner stillness that is beyond words, images, and any sense of separateness. As a general rule, where consciousness goes, healing occurs. If you have pain, you can gently allow your consciousness to enter the pain without trying to change the pain in any way. The mind and body “tighten” and close around pain. Muscles tighten and go into spasm around a primary pain. Let's say the pain is chronic, severe abdominal pain caused by digestive problems. That is the primary pain. The contraction around the primary pain makes it much worse and is responsible for turning pain into suffering. When you send your awareness into a part of your body that needs healing, the secondary tightening begins to soften.
Suffering is caused by fear— fear that the pain won't go away, fear about survival, and ultimately fear of death. Consciousness does not die, and so its presence is always healing wherever you send it. Stephen and Ondrea Levine wrote several books that spell out Conscious Healing. The concept is more than an idea or a paragraph. Healing through conscious awareness and through expanded consciousness is the ultimate mental, physical, and spiritual goal. But the paradox is that, when one attains the highest states of consciousness, which go by names like “Nirvana,” “Samadhi,” “Turiya” and “Enlightenment,” the whole notion of “goals” (such as physical health) disappears. Suffice it to say that the lower one's consciousness, the more one suffers. The more one can raise consciousness over years and decades, the less one suffers and the more one experiences joy.
There are two major issues about the healing power of consciousness. First, gently sending your consciousness into pained or difficult parts of your body and mind does alleviate suffering, and can provide complete and total healing. Second, the person with elevated consciousness, the yogi or rishi, no longer identifies with his body. So, even if his body has pain, he does not consider that he is suffering, for at this point, his body has become an “it.” The body is a thing just as a spoon or a chair, and the enlightened individual will almost always refer to his body as, “the body.” For example, he might say, “The body is in some pain at this time.” He will not say, “I am in pain,” for he does not consider “I” to be the same as the body.
When the mind-body connection becomes completely understood, all the issues in this article will need to be conceptualized in an integrated way, and with great detail given to each mechanism by which mind and body communicate.
This is the philosophical, psycho-spiritual framework in which I do my work. As a nutritional specialist, it is quite clear that when you bring body metabolism back into balance, mind and body are both affected for the better. Many people consult with me who only want to work on the body or the mind. I strongly resist this request, since mind and body truly cannot be separated. It is not just my commitment to practicing alternative, holistic, integrative medicine. The belief that one has a problem that is 100 percent in the body or 100 percent in the mind is destructive, for that belief runs counter to the truth already verified by science.
Regardless of where one chooses to make a therapeutic intervention (mind or body), it is helpful to understand that mind and body are not only inter-connected, they cannot even be separated. Mind is not confined to the space between the ears. We know that the mind, thoughts, and emotions communicate directly with every cell in our body, and especially with all nerve cells and all immune system cells. We also know that the mind can affect other living beings miles away. So, the mind is not even confined to the body or even the immediate vicinity of the physical body. Where does the mind end? Where does the body start? It is impossible to answer this question in a linear way. It is more correct to say that mind and body are one . . . and both are permeated with consciousness.
David Gersten, M.D. practices nutritional medicine and psychiatry out of his Encinitas office and can be reached at 760-633-3063. Please feel free to sign up for Dr. G's Health Digest newsletter at www.aminoacidpower.com and access 1,000 on-line pages about holistic health, amino acids and nutritional therapy.
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I read your books regularly, sometimes rereading parts that I feel are current areas of weakness. However, I still find that when someone, not necessarily close to me, experiences something exciting (marriage, engagement, etc.), my first gut response is jealousy or judgment. When I stop to regain my perspective, I know that I'm happy where I am in my life for the most part, but want to eliminate these negative reactions and truly feel joy for others' joys and successes. Why don't I feel that more easily, and how can I?
-S.M., Seattle, WA
What you're talking about is just an old pattern. It's a habitual childhood reaction to old triggers. The minute it happens again, immediately say to yourself, “Oh, that's just an old pattern. I am no longer that person. Today I am a secure, confident person who constantly attracts good into my life. There is plenty for all of us.” Do this for one month, and the entire pattern will dissolve. All is truly well!
Do you have a probable cause and new thought pattern for lactose intolerance?
S.C., Atlantic City, New Jersey
Always listen to the messages your body is giving you. Your body wants to remain as healthy as possible in spite of how you may be treating it. This is not a dis-ease! Almost everybody would be better off if they avoided dairy products. Cow's milk is designed for calves, not for human beings. More women, especially, have myriad health problems because they knowingly or unknowingly eat milk, cheese, ice cream, and so on. My own body certainly does better without them.
It's a pity that society has chosen to label a perfectly healthy process, and to try to turn it into a dis-ease. Please don't feel deprived. Feed your body only the foods and beverages that give you a slender, healthy body and lots of good energy.
Affirm: I adore my body and rejoice in its uniqueness.
I'm having discomfort in my neck, which is tolerable, but the pain in my left hand and thumb is a little more severe. I had a spinal fusion 13 years ago and had no problems up until now. Obviously I didn't learn the lessons then, and am afraid I may be having the same issues at this time in my life. I thought you would be kind enough to inform me of issues that pertain to the neck, left arm, left hand, and thumb pain. Thanks for your time.
The left side of the body represents the feminine principle, while the right side represents the masculine principle. Your issues are connected to the women in your life, especially your mother. The neck represents the ability to see all sides of a situation. The left arm embraces life, the hand holds events and situations, and the thumb represents worry, the inability to hold joy. I have a feeling that you've got lots of forgiveness work to do to release old events with your mother. Just let it all go. You're not the person you were when those events took place. Come into present time—you deserve to live joyously.
I'd like to recommend a new book I've read, Effortless Pain Relief, by Ingrid Bacci (published by Free Press). You can find it on the Internet. Ingrid is a miracle worker when it comes to helping people release all sorts of pain. I highly recommend it to you.
In the meantime, give yourself five minutes three times a day to sit quietly and just breathe deeply and say to yourself, “I release and I let go. I let forgiveness flow. They are free, and I am free. It feels so good to let go.”
If you would like Louise to answer your letter in this publication, please send it to: Dear Louise Column, c/o Hay House, Inc., P.O. Box 5100, Carlsbad, CA 92018-5100, or e-mail your letter to: firstname.lastname@example.org (letters used in this column may be edited for length and clarity). Please visit Louise's website at: www.LouiseHay.com or the Hay House website at: www.hayhouse.com.
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