The Mind-Body Connection - Science or Voodoo ?
by Farzana Rahman
photo by Miguel Brunna
Is the Mind-Body Connection Real?
This is a fairly common question that comes up whenever we talk about the mind-body connection. It’s understandable; sometimes discussions in this space can feel a little out there.
So let’s break it down. We don’t have a problem with the mind-body connection when we think of straightforward processes. The link seems obvious when we think about clear-cut activities such as walking, talking or eating.
Going a little deeper, we also know that there is a clear mind-body connection when it comes to emotions. In fact when it comes to emotions, the mind-body connection can be so strong that at times it’s downright annoying. Have you ever tried desperately not to go red when you’re embarrassed ? Or what about trying to hold back tears when you’re upset? I find that the more I will myself to not be embarrassed, the more embarrassed I become.
Skepticism About the Mind-Body Connection
There are probably few people who would disagree that the mind-body connection actually exists. But skepticism comes into play when we talk about the mind-body connection in relation to disease and healing.
It’s probably because we hear about the importance of the mind-body connection and healing from meditation instructors and yoga teachers. We associate it with mellow music and incense, not with a visit to the doctor. But should this be the case ?
Research Exploring the Mind-Body Connection
So is there any scientific evidence to back up the idea that the mind-body connection plays an important part in relation to healing ? The short answer is yes. There is a wealth of interesting research out there. The study described below is one of the first and landmark studies in this area.
Rats, Sugar and Immunity
No, this is not the name of a garage band.
In fact, this describes a fascinating study that was one of the first to explore the mind-body connection.
In 1975, Ager and Cohen looked at the immune system in a rat population (rodents are commonly used for scientific experiments as they share 99% of their genes with humans).
The rats were injected with cyclophosphamide, an immunosuppressive agent (as its name suggests, immunosuppressive agent dampen and suppress the immune system). The rats were also given saccharin (sugar-flavored) water to drink at the same time. It was expected that the cyclophosphamide would suppress the immune system and indeed this was what the researchers found.
However, the next step in the experiment is what was surprising for researchers. They went on to give the rats the same saccharin-flavored water as before but this time there was NO cyclophosphamide injection. To the surprise of the researchers, the rats continued to demonstrate evidence of immune suppression.
The Conditioned Immune Response and the Mind-Body Connection
The researchers went onto condition the term the ‘conditioned immune response.’ It was the idea that the immune system can be conditioned in the same way Pavlov’s dogs learned to salivate in response to a bell.
So What Next ?
This was a hugely important study in understanding the mind-body connection. Subsequent studies have expanded on the idea that the immune system can be conditioned. They have gone on to explore the idea that maybe this type of conditioning does not always have to be with chemical or physical stimuli (as was the case in this experiment). There has been ground-breaking research that this type of conditioning can be linked through cognitive stimuli such as emotions and thoughts.
We’ll be exploring some of these studies in our subsequent blogs, stay upto date by subscribing to our news letter and we’ll keep you posted !
Psychosom Med. 1975 Jul-Aug;37(4):333-40. Behaviorally conditioned immunosuppression. Ader R, Cohen N.