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Misunderstanding Mind & Body
For forty years, I have been reading books and articles on how the “mind has limitless powers to heal.” Books, magazine articles and television reports recycle old material often presenting the same old stuff as new exciting discoveries. Forty years ago these ideas were more appealing to me and I pursued them in my professional and personal life. But they have become irrelevant fantasies and obstacles to understanding mind-body interactions. Ideas about the healing mind involve a set of misunderstandings, fantasy and human narcissism which leads people to claim more ability and more control than they actually have.
Life is difficult, and you can argue that a little fantasy and narcissism offers solace to people who might otherwise despair. I was browsing popular magazines in the local library and choose one example from a Canadian magazine directed to women. I am not citing the article because it is a generic repetition of similar articles published in many magazines. The article begins with a story of a woman who had a breast cancer removed and survived 20 years without a recurrence. Long term survivors of cancer are expected in the normal distribution of cancer outcomes. This survivor claims that positive thinking and meditation were responsible for her survival. This is a narcissistic claim that gives the survivor and her audience a feeling of security that cannot be substantiated. The article does not mention other women who practiced positive thinking and meditation who died of their cancers. They are more numerous than the survivors.
I advocate positive thinking and meditation but do not expect these strategies to cure diseases such as cancer. Cancers are abnormal growths of cells that have mutated genes and fail to respond to the usual controls over cell behavior and replication. Cell mutations are deeply imbedded in an ancient matrix of life determinants that cannot be easily altered. Some cancers do not progress because the mutated cells are not aggressive and may be destroyed by defenses that routinely destroy abnormal cells.
The survivors are lucky, not superior beings with superior mental abilities. The article talks about ‘using the mind to change body chemistry.” The problem with this talk is that there is no understanding of how body-mind works. You live inside your mind. It is incorrect to claim that you can use your mind as if you were outside of mind. It is more correct to state that your mind can use you. Since you are inside your mind, you experience a monitor image of your body that shrinks and expands in your consciousness, depending on what is going on inside. The connection between body and mind is the brain. The brain is the organ of the mind.
To be completely correct, we have to admit that brain is inside the mind. To speak pragmatically, we have to join bodybrainmind into the whole entity that it is. We can claim that body events are brain events are mind events.
The chemistry of bodybrainmind is implicit in mind. Every action, every reaction of bodybrainmind involves changes in the way the whole system works. Many of these changes can be understood in terms of physiology, chemistry and genetics. This is not news. Exercise, for example, changes bodybrainmind and some of these changes are beneficial. Women who exercise regularly have a lower incidence of breast cancer and depression; they tend to be both healthier and more successful in life endeavors. The human bodybrainmind evolved in natural environments where exercise was mandatory and physical fitness had survival value. In contrast, the modern woman who eats too much and exercises too little gains weight and may become anxious and depressed. She may develop many diseases, including breast cancer. She is not a survivor until she returns to the habits of her ancient ancestors. When she eats less food, changes food selection to fruits and vegetables and works physically everyday, she thinks, feels and acts better. At the same time, she decreases her risk of developing a fatal disease.
I have met people who practiced yoga and meditation and tried their best to think positively, but they ate too much food, exercised too little and developed food-related diseases. They failed to achieve the biological requirements for long-term health. While it may be true that meditation is a superb method of studying your own consciousness and can lower blood pressure, reduce heart rate and generate a feeling of well-being, all the benefits can be reversed quickly – just drink some coffee, eat the wrong food and drive home through traffic.
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