The Biology of Belief.

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The Mind Body Connection
By Jerry Brownstein
Have you ever heard of the placebo effect? In a typical experiment to test a new drug patients with the targeted disease are split up into two groups: one group gets the drug and the people in the second group are told that they are getting the drug but they actually get a sugar pill that has no active ingredients. In virtually every experiment the second group shows a great improvement in their condition, and at times they show as much or more than the people who took the real medicine. Remember, these were the patients who thought they were getting the real drug but actually took a meaningless sugar pill. Clearly it was the power of their belief that activated their bodies to heal with no outside intervention. Welcome to the mind/body connection.

There are countless scientific studies that have conclusively proven this incredible connection between what people believe and how their bodies react. Most of the placebo studies have focused on taking pills or medicines that have no active ingredients, but it also works for surgical procedures. The most famous research of this kind involved arthroscopic surgery for osteoarthritis of the knee. This is a very common procedure that surgeons use to relieve inflammation by going into the knee to remove fragments of cartilage. To test the effectiveness of this surgery 180 patients who had osteoarthritis were randomly assigned to two groups. One group had the standard arthroscopic procedure, while those in the other group had sham surgery. They had the same small incision as the real surgery, and a procedure was faked so that they thought they were getting the real thing… but actually nothing had been done. Then the incision was closed. The results were stunning. Those who had the actual procedures did no better than those who had the sham surgery. The same amount of people in each group reported greatly improved health in their knees.

The placebo effect shows that positive belief can cure the physical body. The opposite of the placebo is the nocebo effect, which shows that negative beliefs have negative effects on the body. In one of the many studies of the nocebo, all of the patients were warned that the powerful drug they were being given could have toxic side effects including the loss of hair. As expected many of the people who took the real drug did experience these effects, but the amazing result was that 30% of the people who took the fake drug lost all of their hair! How could that be? You can’t lose your hair from taking a sugar pill… unless you believe that the pill is a toxic drug.

How is it that your mind alone is capable of creating these incredible physical and chemical responses in your body? What is the process that transmits the power of your feelings and emotions from the brain to your cells? A simplified version of what happens goes something like this: Your brain employs a very efficient messenger service that immediately alerts the cells in your body whenever it is experiencing a thought or emotion. For example, when you are having a joyful feeling your brain automatically sends special messenger molecules (called peptides) throughout your body spreading the good news that a happy emotion is being felt. When each of these molecules arrives at a cell it plugs into the cell wall at a special receptor point - like a key going into a lock. Once this “key” fits it enables the messenger to communicate with the DNA in the nucleus of the cell. In this example it “tells” the DNA that you are feeling joy and instructs it to produce the specific chemicals that are associated with that delightful emotion. This happens in trillions of cells at the same moment creating changes in your body which reflect that happy feeling.

All of your thoughts and emotions trigger this same process - first they are experienced in the brain; then they are communicated to your cells; finally the DNA in the cells is instructed to change your body chemistry. Positive ideas and beliefs send messages that help to create health and healing, while negative ones do the opposite. Perhaps if we can learn how to transmit the right signals to our DNA by managing our thoughts and emotions we will be able to treat many physical conditions without the use of harmful drugs or surgery. This mind/body connection could be the foundation of a revolutionary new way of promoting good health and healing, yet conventional medicine has been slow to embrace it. Healing through non-physical means does not fit within their prevailing philosophy so they reject it. One is reminded of the famous quote from Schopenhauer:

“All truth passes through three stages. First it is ridiculed. Second it is violently opposed. Third it is accepted as being self-evident.”

It would seem that with regard to the mind/body connection we have passed through most of the first stage and are now firmly within the second stage. Yet despite the resistance the conventional scientific community, there continues to be considerable research into how we can learn to use our intentions, beliefs and perceptions to create health and well-being. Some day this work will lead us to Schopenhauer’s third stage when everyone will acknowledge that the human body is not merely a complex machine, but is in fact a vibrant energy center which responds holistically both to physical stimulation and to the power of our consciousness.


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