Is the “Mind Body Connection” New Agey or Scientific?

200px-Descartes mind and body

See, they're connected.

Do you believe in a “mind body connection”? I hear this phrase thrown around a lot. To some people the whole idea sounds like voodoo, while others think it is a concept from the frontiers of neuroscience. Others think it is an earth shattering profundity of spiritual dimension that will revolutionize medicine, science and life as we know it.

I find it interesting that there is so much controversy and confusion surrounding this phrase, because on one level it should be trivially obvious that the mind can affect the body. If I think about walking to the store, I can make my body walk to the store. If I feel the emotion of anger, my face might get red. If I get scared of a bear, I might not digest my food very well. These facts are almost boringly obvious. So what is the source of the confusion and controversy here?

Deepities defined

I think Dan Dennett can help us understand. Dennett is such an amazing philosopher that he actually has numerous ideas with practical value. One of his many awesome contributions to clear thinking is his coinage of the term “deepity.”

Dennett defines a deepity as a somewhat ambiguous statement that precariously balances between two possible meanings. One potential meaning is true but trivially obvious, while the other would be earth shatteringly profound if true, but is in fact false. One example of a deepity that Dennett offers is the phrase: “love is just a word.”

On one level the statement is perfectly true in a very uninteresting way – “love” is in fact a four letter word. The alternate “deeper” interpretation of the phrase suggests the amazing idea that maybe love doesn’t really exist! But this is in fact false: love is a real emotion that people really feel.

Once you get a grip on this idea, you can see deepities everywhere, especially in alternative health care. For example, I think that many times when the phrase “mind body connection” is used, it can have a deepity-like ambiguity that causes people to confuse neuroscience with new age spirituality or vice versa.

On the “true” side of the deepity equation, neuroscience has now proven that brain activity interacts with the body through the nervous system, issuing motor commands, and controlling numerous other aspects of physiology. Science has also shown that emotional and mental states have large effects on the autonomic nervous system, the endocrine system, and the immune system, in ways that can create placebo effects or have significant effects on various measures of health. Long term emotional stress is a killer. Pain is in the brain. So of course thoughts and feelings can affect the body.

Confusing mind/body with mind over matter

Many people will confuse these scientific findings with proof that the mind has some magical or all powerful control over the body, or even the outside world. In effect, they have mistaken the idea of a “mind/body connection” with the idea of mind over matter. Many alternative health gurus like Deepak Chopra will attempt to use neuroscience to validate some very new agey or spiritual ideas about the nature of reality, such as the ideas that: reality is only what you believe it to be; your “intentions” can heal others; you can have unlimited health, wealth, love and success if you only choose it; and visions in your mind will manifest themselves in the universe in magical, mysterious or powerful ways.

One popular version of this mindset is called the Law of Attraction (discussed in the hugely popular book The Secret and featured on Oprah, Larry King, etc.) This “law” claims that you create your reality through your thoughts, so that a positive mental state can basically shape the whole universe to work in your favor. An excellent example of this type of thinking was displayed recently by Deepak Chopra, who apologized that some of his meditations on Shiva (the Hindu god of destruction) caused an earthquake in Baja California. If the mind and body were indeed connected in these ways, this would be (literally) earth shattering and revolutionary news. However, there is currently no evidence to believe that any of these ideas are true. So this is the “profound but false” side of the deepity equation.

And this is why we can get confused when talking about the mind’s role in health. I think the deepityness of the phrase “mind/body connection” is probably part of the reason why therapeutic methods aimed more at the brain than the body are sometimes inappropriately considered a little woo woo. For example, neurobiologist David Felten faced considerable skepticism from the mainstream medical community in his work establishing that thoughts can affect the immune system. The brain’s role in pain is also now well established in science, but the idea continues to struggle in practice against a strong current of thinking that stubbornly focuses the search for pain solely on the body.

Conversely, the ambiguity of the mind/body connection idea has helped many new age gurus to cloak their supernatural claims in the garb of science. For example, a quick internet search reveals a website called MindBody News, which intersperses small bits of news about recent neuroscience findings with large servings of the Law of Attraction. There are endless other examples of this type of thing.

With all this out there to confuse us, it’s good to know what side of the deepity you or your therapist is on. Feel free to propose some additional deepities in the comments section. I think the words “energy” and “intention” probably qualify.

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18 Responses to “Is the “Mind Body Connection” New Agey or Scientific?”

  1. Excellent post Todd!
    The fact that the mind is in fact nothing but matter, nerve matter that is, and not a mysterious spirit helps to grasp how it actually interacts with the body. It also helps to realise its limitations

  2. Com. Todd,

    How do you think that the visualization techniques that athletes often practice fit into this discussion? For example, a weightlifter spending hours visualizing himself setting a PR with perfect technique.

    Brad

    • Com. Brad,

      Thanks for the comment!

      That’s a great example of something where you could confuse science with voodoo. Science says that visualizing an activity can make you more skilled in the activity. It might also say that visualizing winning could improve performance by giving you more confidence which could put you in a better emotional state for the competition, maybe less stressed. Some people will hear these facts and get confused and think they prove the law of attraction. They might think that if I really believe in something enough it will come true, or that I shape reality with my thoughts and intentions. That would be totally earth shattering news, but there’s no reason to believe that. The truth is far more boring – visualizing will just make you a little more skilled and confident – it won’t work magic.

      What do you think?

  3. Another interesting blog todd. On a more general point…… Having read you web site i agree with much of what you say and think you articulate it well. You talk a lot about boy maps and increasing S1 awareness of relevant body parts to increase function and decrease pain and the sensory/ motor mismatch. Do you use graded motor imagery or 2 point discriminatory training at all to help you?

  4. Good post. I’d figured this out, but couldn’t express it clearly, so reading this was really helpful.

    I’ve noticed this about a lot of the new age philosophy and other spiritual statements -that they were metaphors that could be interpreted more than one way.

    Especially noticed with alternative health – that there is a vagueness to why/how things work – what does that explanation really mean?

    Not sure you can subscribe to alternative health without subscribing to the New Age world view. This after having been a proponent of it for 8 years or so. Finally walked away from it.

    • Thanks Walter,

      The alternative health care world is certainly quite infected with new age thinking but that doesn’t mean to me that it isn’t useful. Bodywork is alternative healthcare and might be very helpful. Further, even if a bodyworker has an unscientific explanation for why their method works, that often doesn’t prevent them from being an excellent therapist.

      • It can be useful. I wouldn’t have stuck with it for 8 years if it was completely useless. I just found that its proponents (like proponents of anything) over promised and under delivered.

        Alternative health care providers also don’t seem to know when they are in their circle of competence and when they are not. This is not just limited to them, but I found this to be a big thing where a provider could help me with one thing and then claim to be able to help me in other areas where they were clueless.

  5. Walter,

    Agreed. If you don’t know the reason why your therapy works, then you don’t know its limits.

  6. I agree with you Todd. The visualizing that I’ve done with sports has usually been helpful, mostly at building confidence and maybe improving technique. There have been plenty of times when it hasn’t worked at all!

  7. I believe that the best approach to health encompass both conventional and alternative means. From experience, for example, I have observed that healing after surgery can be hastened by preparing not only the patient’s body but the mind, as well.

  8. Part of the problem is that we instinctively cling to mind body dualism – where the mind and the body are treated as distinct entities. Even though this has long been scientifically dismissed, this attitude still permeates our attitudes to health – we have “mental health” provision, we have specialists in physical ailments, but there is a pretty woeful overlap between the two (you only have to look at how badly the NHS caters for counselling or CBT provision – even though it’s recommended by NICE for a whole host of conditions…)

    So it should be no surprise that the mind can effect the body and the body can effect the mind – they are simply both part of the same system.

    Now, of course I agree that some New Agers may take this to the extreme by therefore claiming that the mind can “heal” pretty much anything – which is of course not true, but i think that the pendulum at the moment is still too far towards the “anything to do with the mind is bunk…” school of thought….so even a minor correction here would be welcome.

    With regards to medical evidence for the mindbody links – i posted this on the other sarno blog, and i think it’s relevant here too – there is a comprehensive list of abstracts which look at the evidence for mindbody techniques here:
    http://tmswiki.wetpaint.com/page/Annotated+Bibliography

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