Mind Body Brain – What is this?
We all know from experience that our mental and emotional state can affect our body. You only have to think about speaking in front of a large crowd to know what havoc nerves can have on the digestive system, well for me anyway!
Recent research suggests that this is also reversed or perhaps even more accurately, that Mind, Body and Brain are one, without distinction or hierarchy of function. When it comes to health and wellbeing this is a hotly debated area as well as one filled with seemingly new and exciting findings thanks to the advances in science, particularly neuroscience.
Can the mind influence the body?
The latest scientific evidence and clinical trials that have been conducted to determine whether or not the mind can actually influence the body and health have concluded – yes (Marchant,J 2016). Let’s consider the placebo effect for instance . This is a phenomenon whereby people can receive a treatment with an expectation that it will be effective but in fact the treatment they are receiving is ‘fake’ in that it has no biochemical components and yet desired bio-physical changes occur.
The Healing (Placebo) Effect
The placebo effect has been explained and understood in many ways – it may just be that people report feeling better to please others or they would have got better anyway in time and so forth. The core understanding within the medical and scientific community historically, has been to minimise what is happening and to be largely disinterested. Recently however, researchers who have been curious about this effect and not dismissive, have found measurable, biological changes in the body that are similar to those caused by drugs.
The placebo effect or the expectation or faith that something will assist can create a physiological response in the body whereby it responds – lessening pain, inflammation, anxiety, depression – because the Mind/Body provides feedback to the brain that then makes decisions about how to respond. A compelling influence in this process is our psychological disposition. If we feel alone, unsupported, stressed, anxious, the brain will understand that as a threat and it ramps up the warning signals and in turn we can end up feeling more alone, more stressed and so forth with all the associated biochemical imbalances. If you feel calm, relaxed and supported, this bodily experience tells the brain that the crisis is over and it will ease off on the warning signals.
The placebo effect or perhaps the healing effect as coined by Dispenza, 2014; is very exciting if the ingredients underpinning its power can be harnessed and used for good not evil. Consider the placebo in terms of depression and anxiety, an ever increasing ailment that is plaguing western cultures. Patients in clinical trials that were given a placebo drug, that is ones with no bio-chemical effect, still reported positive effects. More evidence can be found in many areas supporting the idea that the placebo effect is indeed a healing effect that is incited by the Mind/Body/Brain connection. For example researchers found that patients in a hospital based clinical trial informed they were receiving a strong pain reliever such as morphine responded 50% more positively in terms of pain reduction than those who weren’t told. There are many many examples of similar placebo effects in a plethora of health areas (see Marchant, J 2016).
The big question for me as a mental health practitioner is what are the ingredients of the placebo effect and how can we make use of this in our work (or perhaps we already have been)? Studies have shown that expectation is a very important ingredient – what you are told about an intervention, drug or form of treatment – makes a difference in how we respond. They have also shown that the relationship between the patient/client with their treating practitioner is an important variable (we have known this for ever but it is now scientifically proven to be a significant variable). The warmth and empathic capacity of the practitioner has a positive effect on the treatment. Can these factors in combination with the pharmacologically based treatments give more efficacy to treatment overall? Indications to date suggest absolutely.
The placebo response then really isn’t the placebo but more to do with the Mind/Body/Brain – our belief, faith, hope, – that is, what it means to us and our belief in receiving a positive outcome. This is absolutely fascinating to me and exciting, I think, to the health profession at all levels. The complexity of this area can be daunting, at least for me. In the midst of this healing capacity our Mind/Body/Brain has, are also a myriad of factors that have a role to play in this incredibly intricate and intelligent system that is the human Mind/Body/Brain.