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Mental Healing: Does Positive Thinking Act Upon Brain Neurons to Improve Health?

Kimberly Bibbo

Almost all of us have heard of a scenario such as this one: A woman battling cancer has lost almost all hope of recovery. She has not been able to turn to her family for support for fear of their reactions to her illness. One morning she finally breaks down and tells her husband about the cancer. Instead of being devastated and turning his back on his wife, the husband supports the wife, every step of the way, and she gradually seems to improve.

Why is it that something as seemingly innocent as love and support can prolong life or improve someone's health? Is there any neurological evidence that positive thinking, love, and help can actually stimulate the brain to improve health? And how about the placebo effect? How is it that people can get better subconsciously? It seems that some health improvement can either happen consciously (I-function) as in the case of emotional support, or subconsciously (without the I-function) as in a placebo effect.

I would like to assert for this paper, as an overview of the whole course, that some kinds of alternative medicine and mental healing do indeed work. The question is, does it have a neurological basis of brain=behavior or is there something more at work like hope or other emotions that are so far intangible in the human brain? Certain things we may never be able to find in the brain, but either way, I would like to assert that even though brain=behavior does account for most behaviors and actions in the body, that there may at least be something more. I will review all the literature I found and let the decision be yours, but also add in my two cents on the total findings for this paper.

First, a paper that takes a rather mystical view on mental health: "Worldview of Mental Healing" by Gerald Grow.(1). In his paper, Grow speaks extensively about the power of thought in effecting health, be it positive or negative. Most important to the reader of the article, Grow establishes from the start of the article that "mental healing" is the term coined for the traditional idea of "mind" and "body." A perfect example of Grow's stance on health and "mental healing" is in the statement he makes concerning a person's thoughts on wellness: "On a simple level, a person whose self-image has led to a destructive diet that has caused medical problems may improve the problem and the diet by changing the self-image--which is a way of thinking, an intention, a mental act." Grow likens these kind of healing processes to the work that psychologists do with their patients in therapy.

The ideas that Grow claims under the mantra of mental healing that are the most similar to psychology are visualization and self-affirmation. Traditionally techniques used by Behaviorists in Psychology, Grow talks about people taking the time to explore what is inside of themselves. He says by visualizing problems, people can then work them through in their own mind, and find the right solution. Self-affirmation, on the other hand, is designed to counteract negative statements like "I am a failure at my job." Instead, statements such as, "This job is hard, but I will keep trying my best," are meant to replace the negative thoughts that can lead to stress and anxiety.(1). In relation to the course material in this semester's class, ideas like those by Grow would translate into the following: By thinking positively, the confidence achieved from that inner strength becomes a conscious effort of the I-function. Therefore, even though most actions we perform in the world are unconscious patterns previously learned, those behaviors, thoughts, and even states of health can be changed or altered through our consciousness. What is the biological explanation for this?

In a short link, (2). , there are two doctors mentioned that I studied in my abnormal psychology course this semester. The entire idea behind their program is to study what kind of treatment either ill or terminally ill people receive (supportive versus dismissive) from family members and health care workers. Statistically, the people who receive support and love have longer life spans, by almost 20 months in the case of one cancer study. So, in the spirit of the assertion that brain=behavior, how can positive thinking and supportive care change functioning biologically?

Apparently, there is a biological basis for this connection, as we learned in Abnormal Psychology. When a person is under less stress, or learns how to alleviate stress through mental healing and positive thinking, the killer cells that protect the body's immune system are more abundant and numerous in the immune system. When someone is more prone to stress, their killer cells are at a lower count, resulting in illness e ither in the long-term (high risk of cancer, heart disease) or short term (cold, flu). Therefore, the I-function must be used to make an individual aware of how to control stress to avoid anxiety and illness. The question still remains, when a person consciously uses the I-function to change otherwise unconscious things such as stress control or body functioning, what part of the brain does it act upon?

Apparently, the answer is in the hormones. After reading an article in HealthyWay magazine online, (3). , and checking out extensive links on the page, it appears that "mental healing," as coined by Grow in his article, triggers the process in the brain of releasing specific hormones. As cited from this article, "When hormones, such as noradrenaline, are over- or under-produced, your emotional state can be disrupted negatively and positively." The HealthyWay article also talks about "thinking" yourself better or worse. In terms of evidence, HealthyWay talks about studies done on victims of either serious illness or natural disasters, who, through extensive research ((4). ,(5). ,(6). ) have found that people can either "think" themselves in or out of stress and subsequently, their state of health.

In my own mind, these articles eventually, be it direct or in a round-about way, led up to a biological explanation for mental health. Even the ability to stay healthy through positive thought or "mental healing" appeared to have a hormonal basis. One question remains: Where is the I-function i n the brain and how does it work biologically?

This question, from what I understood in class, is not known to have a biological basis, aside from parts of the brain associated with personality, mood, etc. But where is "consciousness?" Not just wakefulness versus sleep, but the consciousness that allows us to control complex body functions? Where is the I-function that can teach us to learn to execute methods such as biofeedback? Where does this kind of powerful interaction take place? I still am not convinced that all the nuances of personality and consciousness can be explained by brain=behavior, or ever will be.

I would like to conclude, as I stated at the start of the paper: Yes, brain=behavior accounts for a great deal of the thought and activity in human functioning: pattern generators, automatic reactions or functioning that take place all the time in human behavior. But I do believe that there is a center of the brain, our "thoughts" and "voluntary control" that are biologically unexplainable in the full capacity they deserve. Our thoughts, bad or good, are what act on the brain to release the neurotransmitters that effect mood or health. And the "thoughts," good or bad, are what lower or raise the levels of NK (killer) cells in the immune system to determine a link between stress and health.

But what is causing the ability to change body functioning and chemical levels?

To again use I-function acquired in the course, where is it in the brain and nervous system, and what is it doing? I will continue to believe, until I see otherwise, that there is a "mind" or "soul" that science will not be able to find in their search to concretely assert that brain=behavior. If it is indeed something intangible, then for at least a great many years, if ever, science can not find I-function within a mass of tissue cells in the brain.

WWW Sources

1) Mental Healing

2) Maryland Stress & Health Program

3) The Power of Positive Thinking

4)Are you Thinking Yourself Sick?

5)The Brain's Natural Opiates: Endorphines

6)Intrusive Thoughts Proven To Undermine Health




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This paper reflects the research and thoughts of a student at the time the paper was written for a course at Bryn Mawr College. Like other materials on Serendip, it is not intended to be "authoritative" but rather to help others further develop their own explorations. Web links were active as of the time the paper was posted but are not updated.

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