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This is part of the background information by Sylvia Engdahl for her science fiction novel Stewards of the Flame. If you don't see a menu on the left, please click here and then on "Mind's influence on health."

The Mind's Influence on Health Is Well Established

In the past few decades there has been an immense amount of research showing that physical health is strongly influenced by the mind. The first area in which this was demonstrated, initially through studies with rats, was the immune system, and the science of psychoneuroimmunology is by now well established. But the various functions of the body are not as separate as they were once thought to be, and it is being found that the mind affects virtually all of them. Psychological stress is not the only cause of illness -- genetic predisposition and environmental factors contribute, and in some cases predominate. But it is becoming evident that it plays a major role, especially in diseases that develop over a long period of time.

There is not the slightest doubt about this among researchers who have investigated it. However, it has yet to be accepted by the majority of medical practitioners (although more and more institutions are giving at least token attention to what's generally called mind-body medicine). In part, this is simply the result of resistance to change: it is contrary to what doctors were taught in medical school. Moreover, many are unaware that the physical mechanisms by which the mind affects the body are being discovered, and scientists are never willing to accept the existence of phenomena for which no known mechanism can account; thus they assume that claims for involvement of the mind imply some sort of vague mystical effect which they are understandably reluctant to acknowledge. But I think there is also a deeper reason why most doctors -- and for that matter, most patients -- don't want to believe that that health is dependent on the mind. If they believed that it is, they would have to admit that there is not a lot they can do to eliminate chronic illness. They would be forced to recognize that much of what they do is at best ineffective and at worst, may be harmful. Almost all doctors want to help people. Their lives would be in ruins if they allowed themselves to suspect that they can't.

This is a serious problem, and it's going to get worse as the evidence for the mind's influence on health builds up, because we do not, at present, have any way to overcome stress-based illness. Stress is part of life, and our physiological reactions to it are normal; so far we cannot alter them enough to prevent long-term damage to our bodies. There are countless practitioners now offering supposed treatments -- "stress reduction" techniques, nutritional strategies, lifestyle advice, and so forth -- but these help only people in whom they activate the placebo response (i.e. the mind's innate healing power). This is even more true of the various forms of alternative medicine, which make fine statements about the importance of mental attitude and the dangers of drugs and surgery, yet advocate modes of treatment that are physically-based and therefore of value only as metaphors. In my opinion, existing theories of psychology are no better. And so I think there is going to be a reaction against mind-body medicine when it becomes apparent that however valid its explanation for illness may be, it does not work in practice. That's the basis on which I've assumed, in Stewards of the Flame, that in the distant future today's knowledge still won't have been incorporated into standard medicine, and that dogmatic reliance on physical modes of treatment will actually have increased -- except among a small minority with the vision to move toward a solution we of the 21st century lack the means to implement.

Links to articles about the mind's influence on health:

Brain Check, Newsweek, September 27, 2004. "Scientists are mapping the pathways that link emotion to health. The challenge for the rest of us is to put the discoveries to work." This is an introduction to a special issue containing other articles on mind-body medicine, which are linked to it.

Recite Your Mantra and Call Me In the Morning, New York Magazine, May 11, 1998. By Henry Dreher, author of Mind-Body Unity. "There are those who think it's a very weird thing to do and those who have faith in the growing body of research suggesting that many mind-body applications actually help. 'If you don't help patients to harness their own healing capacities, you are putting them at a significant disadvantage.... There are certainly dozens and now probably hundreds of studies showing the effect of mind or emotion on the immune system.'"

Video: Philip Zimbardo, "Health Mind Behaviour" (excerpt)

The Placebo Effect: Redefining the Role of the Mind, Bryn Mawr College student paper, 1993. "Once thought of as an inactive, harmless mock substance, placebos have now shown that they induce brain activity. Therefore, the perceived benefit that once was laughed off as fooling the patient may actually be a consequence of very real physical responses created by the mind."

Placebo Power, Alternative Medicine, June 2006. "The distinctions between mind and body and between 'active' medication and placebo are far more arbitrary and ambiguous than conventional medicine would have us believe."

Deconstructing the Placebo Effect and Finding the Meaning Response, Annals of Internal Medicine, March 19, 2002. By Daniel E. Moerman, author of Meaning, Medicine and the "Placebo Effect". "We define the meaning response as the physiologic or psychological effects of meaning in the origins or treatment of illness; meaning responses elicited after the use of inert or sham treatment can be called the 'placebo effect' when they are desirable and the 'nocebo effect' when they are undesirable."

Mind/body Medicine, University of Maryland Medical Center, December 1, 2002. "As Hippocrates once wrote, 'The natural healing force within each one of us is the greatest force in getting well.' This is the essence of mind/body medicine."

The Mind-Body Interaction in Disease, Scientific American, August 2002. By Esther M. Sternberg, author of The Balance Within. Reprinted at Speaking of Faith (radio) website; podcast also available. "The brain and the immune system continuously signal each other, often along the same pathways, which may explain how state of mind influences health."

Lonely? Watch Your Health, Reuters, September 13, 2007. "What this study shows is that the biological impact of social isolation reaches down into some of our most basic internal processes -- the activity of our genes.... We have known for years that there is this epidemiological relationship between social support -- how many friends and family members you have around you -- and a whole bunch of physical outcomes."

Interview with Dr. John Sarno, Part I and Part II, Medscape Today, June 2004. "Large numbers of people in whom the pain was being attributed to some structural abnormality actually had a totally different disorder. It was a disorder in which the pain was very real, but it was initiated by emotional factors."

The Healing Force Within Vancouver Sun, April 8, 2003. By Gabor Maté, author of When the Body Says No. "As far as orthodox medical practice is concerned, the mind-body research all falls into some Bermuda Triangle, lost without a trace. The medical system continues to operate as if the new science did not exist."

Books I especially recommend to general readers:

Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers: An Updated Guide to Stress, Stress-Related Diseases, and Coping, Robert M. Sapolsky, W.H. Freeman, 2nd ed. 1998, 0716732106.

Who Gets Sick: How Beliefs, Moods and Thoughts Affect Health, Blair Justice, Peak Press, rev. ed. 2000, 0960537678.

Mind-Body Unity: A New Vision for Mind-Body Science and Medicine, Henry Dreher, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003, 0801873924.

The Placebo Response: How You Can Release the Body's Inner Pharmacy for Better Health, Howard Brody, Cliff Street Books Harper, 2000, 0060194936.

The Divided Mind: The Epidemic of Mindbody Disorders, John E. Sarno, Regan Books, 2006, 0060851783.

Books that explore further details about the mind's influence on health:

Timeless Healing, Herbert Benson, Scribner, 1996, 0684814412.

Head First: The Biology of Hope, Norman Cousins, Dutton, 1989, 0525248056.

Intentional Healing: A Guide to the Mind/Body Healing System, Elliott S. Dacher, Marlowe, 1996, 1569248311.

Where the Mind Meets the Body: The Search for the Mind's Effects on Physical Health, Harris Dienstfrey, HarperPerennial, 1992, 0060922907.

Healing Words: The Power of Prayer and the Practice of Medicine, Larry Dossey, HarperSanFrancisco, 1993, 0062502522.

Healing Beyond the Body: Medicine and the Infinite Reach of the Mind, Larry Dossey, Shambhala, 2003, 1570629234.

Be Careful What You Pray For...You Just Might Get It, Larry Dossey, HarperSanFrancisco, 1998, 0062514342.

The Immune Power Personality: 7 Traits You Can Develop to Stay Healthy, Henry Dreher, Dutton, 1995, 0525938389.

The Cure Within: A History of Mind-Body Medicine, Anne Harrington, Norton, 2008, 0393333973.

Remarkable Recovery: What Extraordinary Healings Tell Us About Getting Well and Staying Well, Caryle Hirshberg and M. I. Barasch, Riverhead Books, 1995, 0788161741.

Cancer as a Turning Point: A Handbook for People with Cancer, Their Families, and Health Professionals, Lawrence LeShan, Plume 1990, 0452264197.

The Biology Of Belief: Unleashing The Power Of Consciousness, Matter And Miracles, Bruce H. Lipton, Mountain of Love, 2005, 0975991477.

The Healer Within: The New Medicine of Mind and Body, Steven Locke and Douglas Colligan, Mentor 1987, 0451625544.

The Healing Mind: The Vital Links Between Brain and Behavior, Immunity and Disease, Paul Martin, St. Martin's, 1999, 0312243006.

When the Body Says No: Understanding the Stress-Disease Connection, Gabor Maté, Wiley, 2003, 0471219827.

The End of Stress As We Know It, Bruce S. McEwen, Joseph Henry Press, 2002, 0309091217.

Meaning, Medicine and the "Placebo Effect", Daniel E. Moerman, Cambridge University Press, 2002. 0521000874.

Healing and the Mind, Bill Moyers, Main Street Books 1995, 0385476876.

The Healing Brain: Breakthrough Discoveries About How the Brain Keeps Us Healthy, Robert Ornstein and David Sobel, Touchstone, 1988, 0671662368.

Psychobiology of Mind-Body Healing: New Concepts of Therapeutic Hypnosis, Ernest Lawrence Rossi, W. W. Norton, 1988, 0393305546.

The Mindbody Prescription: Healing the Body, Healing the Pain, John E. Sarno, Warner Books, 1998, 0446520764.

Healing Back Pain: The Mind-Body Connection, John E. Sarno, Warner Books, 1991, 0446392308.

From Paralysis to Fatigue: A History of Psychosomatic Illness in the Modern Era, Edward Shorter, Free Press, 1993, 0029286670.

Love, Medicine and Miracles: Lessons Learned About Self-Healing from Surgeon's Experience with Exceptional Patients, Bernie S. Siegel, Harper Perennial, 1988, 0060914068.

The Balance Within: The Science Connecting Health and Emotions, Esther M. Sternberg, W. H. Freeman, 2001, 0716744457.

The Type C Connection: The Mind-Body Link to Cancer and Your Health, Lydia Temoshok and Henry Dreher, Plume, 1993, 0452270820.

Mind, Stress, and Emotions: The New Science of Mood, Gene Wallenstein, Commonwealth Press, 2006, 0972060758.

Spontaneous Healing: How to Discover and Enhance Your Body's Natural Ability to Maintain and Heal Itself, Andrew Weil, Knopf, 1995, 0679436073.

Last updated in 2007