We have this strange tendency, here in the western, developed, or ‘minority’ world, to divide the head from the body. Our entire philosophy is predicated on the idea that the brain and the body are separate, distinct individuals, with little or no impact on each other. We are uneasy with documented cases, like the placebo effect, where the two interact in ways we find inexplicable. Yet I have recently experienced in an intensely personal way the profound impact of the body upon the brain, and there are many documented cases of the brain’s effect on the body. Our understanding of ourselves, our physiology and our psychology must remain flawed until we can incorporate the brain and the body into one complete entity, and use that as the basis of all of our models. Let’s call it, oh, I don’t know – a human being, perhaps?
I suspect the separation began as a side effect of scientific reductionism – break a problem down into ever smaller problems, until you can study changes by changing one small thing at a time, and observing the effect. Preferably in a test tube. Scientific reductionism has taught us many things, but it is a mistake to believe that it is sufficient to explain the world. Some things cannot be reduced to their component parts in a meaningful way – it reminds me of the Auditors on Terry Pratchett’s discworld, attempting to understand art by reducing it to its component molecules. Or trying to define good literature by means of mathematical formulae. A book is wonderful if it speaks to you in some way, stirs an emotion – try to define that with numbers, I dare you!
Some things are greater than the sum of their parts. This is where reductionism fails us. It cannot capture the magic of synergy. And it cannot capture the impact of mind upon body, or body upon mind. At least not without putting the mind in a test tube.
Recently I have been recovering from chronic illness – becoming well, and properly nourished, possible for the first time in my life. I have coeliac disease, and it turns out I am very, very, easily poisoned – the slightest crumb of gluten damages my gut and makes me feel amazingly rotten. On the days when I haven’t been poisoned, I am high as a kite on an amazing cocktail of energy and wellbeing. The days when I inadvertently poison myself, I am sick and desperately grumpy and miserable.
Depression is a well known bedfellow of chronic disease. Most of the medical literature on the subject focuses on depression as “a normal reaction to the stress of having a chronic medical condition”. It seems to be rare that the connection between the wellbeing of your body and that of your mind are explored as causal relationships in both directions. Some studies have shown that positive thinking can affect the course of even serious diseases like cancer, yet the overwhelming assumption still seems to be that chronic disease causes depression simply by being an upsetting sort of thing to suffer. It’s not nice to be sick – of course people are going to get depressed about it. And I’m sure that can be a contributing factor. But I am convinced that the body physically brings the mind down, (or up!) and more easily than we give it credit for.
In my own case, my state of mind currently fluctuates in direct proportion to my state of health. And it doesn’t seem to be relevant how well adjusted I am, or how well I am getting on top of the dietary and lifestyle changes. A bad poisoning leads to a massively depressed me. But the reverse is also true – when I am well, unpoisoned, and energetic, I am positively euphoric. True, it may be partly a natural reaction to feeling well after a long time of feeling rotten. But the emotional reaction is often visible even before the physical/digestive reaction is detectable. When I am poisoned, my mood often crashes before my gut reveals the cause.
This fits perfectly with the placebo effect – studies have shown that sugar pills can do all kinds of amazing things, from eliminating pain to curing disease, in the hands of people who believe that they will work. And perhaps this also explains the success of homeopathy, which is otherwise inexplicable to current science. And the more impressive the packaging the sugar pills come in, the stronger the medicinal effect. Nifty, eh? So if we can persuade ourselves, and our bodies, that a drug will work, simply by dressing it up in snazzy clothes, why should we be surprised that our bodies can affect our brains with similar power?
Perhaps there is a group somewhere that I haven’t heard about, that is happily researching this very topic. In all probability there are several. But it’s not filtering through to the general population, or even the medical profession. They still seem to want to put my brain in a test tube. If it’s all the same to you, I’d prefer to study it in situ.