The mind is still one of nature’s great secrets – it controls everything we perceive, from sight to pain, along with the unconscious functioning of much of our body. Science is beginning to unlock some of these secrets, and with each discovery we are piecing together its potential. It is in understanding the relationship between our mind and body that we are uncovering the “power of the mind” over our body and health. This is not to say that the mind is the solution to all our health problems, but research is revealing that it does have a significant influence over our health and, in some cases, may be the difference between life and death.
Before we can delve into the role that the mind plays in health, we must first define what is meant by “your mind”. Your mind is broadly divided into the conscious and subconscious. Your subconscious is simply everything that goes on in your mind that you are unaware of. It ranges from all your sensory input to the unconscious modulation of your organs like your immune system, heart and gut. It is this control over the body that is essential for influencing health. It is also the autopilot that does repetitive tasks the same way you first learnt. For example, when driving home we often get there without thinking – the subconscious mind drives us along the well known route.
In contrast, your conscious mind is everything that you are aware of. It includes the sensory information in your subconscious that you pay attention to. For example, when reading this article your attention is on the words, not on the feeling of shoes on your feet; thus you are aware of the words and not your feet (until now). Your conscious mind also includes your ego and self identity. Repetitive conscious thoughts also train the subconscious. So, to learn to drive a car, you had to continually consciously practice (thereby training the subconscious) until it became almost automatic.
Your mind, both conscious and subconscious, is dependent on the communication between brain cells called neurons. As a result, the mind needs the brain to function. Destroying the brain destroys the mind. Damage to certain parts of the brain will lead to predictable damage to our mind. For example, damage to an area called the fusiform facial gyrus can lead a person to still see and describe the features of a familiar face, but no longer recognise who the face belongs to.
Importantly, the relationship between the mind and the brain works both ways. The mind also directly influences and changes your brain. The more your mind activates (by thinking) a certain part of the brain, the more the brain changes in response to make it easier to use that part of the brain.
In regards to your health, this becomes important as repetitive conscious thoughts teach or instruct the subconscious, which in turn instructs the body through the nervous system. This was demonstrated when researchers at the Lerner Research Institute, USA measured the finger muscle strength of three groups of young healthy volunteers . The first group did nothing; they were the controls or comparison group. The second group were made to mentally practice lifting their finger (15min/day x 5 days week) for 12 weeks. The third group physically practiced lifting their finger for the same time period. Compared to the first group, the physical group increased their finger muscle strength by 53%, but fascinatingly, the mental group also increased their strength by 35%. Therefore, repetitive conscious thoughts are able to have a physiological effect on our body.
Now what happens if these thoughts are either beneficial or detrimental to our health? We get what is known as the placebo effect and the nocebo effect.
To be continued……
Astley Friend is both a traveller on his own cancer journey and a medical scientist with a keen interest in the relationship between our self, our mind, our body and our health.