Dr. Larry Dossey, best-selling author and one of the foremost proponents of mind/body medicine, has written, "Images create bodily changes-just as if the experience were really happening. For example, if you imagine yourself lying on a beach in the sun, you become relaxed, your peripheral blood vessels dilate, and your hands become warm, as in the real thing."
If this is even partially true, it is an astonishing statement.
The case to definitively establish the link between mind and body was opened almost 1,500 years ago when Hippocrates wrote that a person might yet recover from his or her belief in the goodness of the physician. Belief, image, thought-these were all clinical "givens" long before the advent of modern technology.
In 1912 one doctor reported that
tuberculosis patients who had previously been on the mend, when given bad news
(e.g., that a relative had passed away) took sudden turns for the worse and
died. It was not called "stress medicine" or psychoneuroimmunology at that time,
but the concepts were the same. And today the data supporting the connection
between thoughts and health, indeed between mental images and survival, are
"We now can measure changes in immune cells and the brain in ways that give us objective scientific proof of the connection between them," says Mary Jo Kreitzer, director of the Center for Spirituality & Healing at the University of Minnesota.
Hypnotic Suggestion: Talking to The Hand, Literally.
In psychotherapy circles, it is now considered common knowledge that people under hypnosis can be given suggestions and make them manifest in their bodies immediately. For example, a person who is given the suggestion that he is being touched by a burning cigarette will produce a burn blister even though the object that was actually touching him was neither hot nor cold. People known to suffer from multiple personality disorders have even been documented with allergic responses when presenting in one personality but not in the others.
Muscle movement is no different and, according to researchers, anyone who's ever watched a movie has personally experienced the physiologic power of thought or imagery. In one study, movie-goers were monitored (via machines which record galvanic skin responses) and found to unconsciously mimic what was occurring on screen with micro-muscle movements. When someone in the movie jumped, the muscles ordinarily responsible for jumping in the person watching the movie made similar movements.
Brain scans have similarly shown that when we imagine an event, our thoughts "light up" the areas of the brain that are triggered during the actual event. Sports psychologists have been responsible for extensive work in this area. In one study, skiers were wired to EMG machines and monitored in a manner similar to the movie-goers except that they were being monitored for electrical impulses sent to the muscles as they mentally rehearsed their downhill runs. The skiers' brains sent the same instructions to their bodies whether they were doing a jump or just thinking about it.
Outdoor Survival With Words?
What does this mean for a person out in the mountains who suddenly finds himself stuck in a downpour and unable to get out before dark when the temperature is expected to fall nearly 40 degrees? How does this help someone with an asthma attack in the middle of a lake or a person with a broken leg one hour from the nearest ranger station? How does this help a rock scrambler or skier have the performance of a lifetime and keep themselves calm and healthy?
What some people claim is that it
can mean the difference between life and death. Verbal First Aid, a technique used by first responders around the world, for example, is based on the simple notion that the words
we say (to ourselves and to one another) do
matter, that they affect us both physically and mentally, there are ways to
speak that make those words healing, no matter what the situation. "By saying
the right words in the right way we are able to speak directly to the body,
reduce an inflammatory response, help to slow down or stop bleeding, change the
way an event is interpreted so that it is experienced differently IN the body," co-author Judith Prager states.
Others agree. 'There is ample evidence that negative thoughts and feelings can be harmful to the body," says Lorenzo Cohen, director of the Integrative Medicine Program at the M.D.AndersonCancerCenter in Houston. Stress is known to be a factor in heart disease, headaches, asthma and many other illnesses. Studies by Janice Kiecolt-Glaser and Ronald Glaser at Ohio State University show once again how even relatively minor stressors-a job interview or a speaking engagement, for example-can sufficiently compromise the immune system so as to predispose one to illness. The researchers found that a marital spat delays wound-healing and that the stress of caring for an Alzheimer's patient leaves the caregiver more vulnerable to illness even years later.
Chemistry Can Heal or Harm
As reported by the Glasers a healthy person releases cytokines (or "moving cells") which are chemicals that signal the need for immune agents. When a person is under stress (lack of nutrition, emotional duress such as fear or anger) the cytokines are distracted and, instead of calling in the immunity army (white blood cells, for example), they race around wildly through the bloodstream. In fact, according to Kiecolt-Glaser, "When cytokins are misdirected, they produce something you don't want-a prolonged inflammatory response that far exceeds what is needed with infection."
Happily, though, the situation is reversible for what can go down can go up, and what can be lost can be found. At MichiganStateUniversity researchers found that students could use guided imagery to improve the function of certain white blood cells called neutrophils to help themselves defend against bacterial and fungal infections.
Mind and Body: One Organism