Western medicine has reluctantly been forced to acknowledge the power of mind-body healing.
Many medical practitioners don’t like this change because it contradicts their mechanistic view that the mind and body are separate, but they’ve been overwhelmed by hard scientific evidence.
Others, like my wonderful doctor in Boston, embrace this new research as it allows them to serve their patients better, with more efficacious approaches to whole-person wellness.
Here are just a few examples of well-established mind-body research:
- Dr. Guy Montgomery at Mount Sinai Hospital has shown that when patients use hypnosis to support surgery, they achieve better clinical results than 89% of those who do not use hypnosis. It’s a remarkable result: in clinical trials hypnosis consistently improves physical healing of the body after surgery.
Ellen Langer, Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, found that when hotel cleaning staff are told that their daily work is a valuable form of exercise, within only four weeks, they decrease weight, blood pressure, body fat, waist-to-hip ratio, and body mass index. They make all these healthy changes even though their physical activity remains the same.
- Dr. Bruce Moseley, a leading surgeon at Houston Methodist Hospital, proved that when people are given sham surgeries (putting them under anesthetic and giving them cuts and stitches, but no actual surgery) their medical conditions often improve as if they had been treated with real surgery.
On a scale of zero to 10, Eutimo Perez Jr. says the pain in his knee that was once “worse than 10” is no more.
Perez, who suffers from the degenerative joint disease osteoarthritis, took part in a clinical trial designed to test the efficacy of arthroscopic surgery on osteoarthritic knees, and has been pain-free for more than two years since.
The interesting thing is that Perez was in the “sham surgery” group of the study and the researchers did almost nothing to him.
Even though Perez did not receive real surgery, he is delighted with his results: “I can dance, I can go away fishing, I can play basketball and it doesn’t bother me one bit. Everything is wonderful.”
- Irving Kirsch, Associate Director of the Program in Placebo Studies at the Harvard Medical School, reviewed all clinical trials for antidepressants submitted to the US Food and Drug Administration. His research found that 82% of the effect of antidepressants comes from the placebo effect – the phenomenon that if people are given inert pills they believe are real medication, they often heal as if the pills were real. That’s an amazing result – the clinical trials sponsored by pharmaceutical companies prove that their chemicals, which they invest billions into developing, only account for 18% of the efficacy of their drugs. The rest is all in the mind.
The list goes on and on.
The Myth Of Mind-Body Healing
New Age and alternative healing practitioners the world over tout the power of mind-body healing from weight loss to curing cancer and everything in between.
There’s just one, big, huge problem.
Most of the time, mind-body healing does not work.
I’ll go even further and say this: There is no such thing as mind-body healing. It doesn’t exist. It’s a total myth.
Given the focus of my blog, it may surprise you to hear me say this. However, if you’ve tried to make physiological or psychological changes using only your mind, you have already experienced the failure of mind-body healing.
I’ve tried to become more muscular by imagining a slimmer and stronger me. Despite many high school nights laying in bed imagining myself bulking up, I always remained scrawny. Along with everyone else who has tried it.
I’ve tried to become less ashamed, more self-confident, less anxious, happier and more sociable by force of will. Failed, failed, failed and failed again.
If you’ve lain in bed at night wishing you could be different in some way and woken up the next morning just the same, you’ve experienced the same failure of mind-body healing.
It’s The Brain, Stupid
The problem is that “mind-body healing” is a misnomer. The term itself sends us searching in the wrong direction – in a direction that leads to confusion instead of insight.
Our conscious minds are just not equipped to achieve physical healing or psychological change.
In Your Mind Is A Simpleton, I describe how limited our conscious minds are compared to the power of our entire unconscious brains. In Unconscious Memories, I show the memories that drive our psychological makeup and behaviors live mostly outside the conscious awareness of our minds. Even worse, in Denial – Our Best Compensation And Worst Enemy, I show that our conscious minds purposefully push important information out of our conscious awareness in order to avoid pain.
Our conscious minds are not the source of miraculous healing.
Our unconscious brains are.
None of the successful studies into the power of ‘mind’-body healing actually use our minds. Rather, they engage our unconscious brains.
The hypnosis scripts used to improve surgical results bypass the conscious mind and engage unconscious brain processes.
When hotel workers are told by authority-figure doctors in white lab coats that their work is healthy exercise, it’s not the words that have the impact, but the fact that their unconscious brains believe what a respected Harvard doctor tells them.
When we practice meditation, mental activity decreases and we bring more awareness to body-centered processes like our breathing and posture. (The term ‘mindfulness’ used in meditation is a bit misleading here, as the ‘mindfulness’ they are talking about is more a function of the brain than the conscious mind, but I’ll get into that more in the upcoming article “Your Mind On Meditation” in this Neuroscience Of Body-Psyche series). In meditation it’s changes in unconscious brain processes that make a difference more than changes in mental focus. In fact, meditation specifically reduces activity in the conscious mind.
For the placebo effect to work, we have to believe – at an unconscious level – that we are taking a real medication. As soon as we discover that the drugs are fake, the magic is broken and the positive effects disappear.
Trickery And Deception
In sham surgery, doctors cut up their patients and sew them back up without actually doing any surgical intervention. Not surprisingly, even for research purposes this practice is highly controversial.
In studies of the placebo effect, neither the medical staff nor the patients know whether they are administering and receiving a real or fake drug. They both have to believe in the drug in order for the effect to work.
This places serious limitations on the use of such tools. Ethical practitioners don’t feel OK about lying to their patients and most members of the public would not willingly submit to being duped and still charged for services.
But there are tools that can be used ethically and effectively, producing consistent results.
If trickery is not a viable path for healing, then what is?
The Power Of Brain-Body Healing
The documented positive effects of hypnosis and meditation show the way to effective healing. The trick is not just to engage the mind through willpower, not to trick the subconscious through deceit, but rather to engage the unconscious brain in healing processes. But here’s the snag, we need to consciously engage our unconscious brains in healing.
Well, the good news is that the latest research suggests that the reason the conscious mind evolved in humans is precisely to direct unconscious brain and body processes. That’s what your mind is made for!
When we understand how to do that – how to use our conscious minds to direct deep healing in our unconscious brains and bodies – then we can truly achieve miraculous healing, physically, emotionally and spiritually.
The remainder of this Neuroscience Of Body-Psyche series will be dedicated to showing you exactly how to do this.
Stay tuned. And if you haven’t already, make sure you sign up to get regular updates.