The body achieves what the mind believes. Is the body just there to carry around the brain? What is the brain versus the mind? The mind may control the body, but breathing controls the mind. All these statements and questions are peppered throughout the literature on this subject. And yet, daily we exhibit the proof of this connection in our lives and to ourselves as follows. The blush of shyness or embarrassment that turns the face beet red is an external exhibition of the internal connection between the mind (the perception/thought that causes the feeling of embarrassment) and the body (blushing). The thought of sucking a lemon produces saliva in the mouth to protect the teeth from the acid. This is called suggestibility by hypnotherapists and it’s also the proof of the pudding. The mind cannot exist without the body and vice versa. Another important question is, “What is the purpose of the brain?” If you answered, “Survival”, you are half-correct, because the other half is movement. Movement is imperative to the survival of both the body and the brain, hence the importance of the mind-body connection, because the brain needs the body for movement.
There is more wisdom in your body than in your deepest philosophy. – Friedrich Nietzsche
Religious Roots to the Mind-Body Connection
Rene Descartes, the 17th century philosopher and scientist, concluded that mind and body are separate entities. Mind-body dualism (specifically “substance dualism”) is associated with the theory put forth by Descartes where he argued that the brain is the seat of intelligence, but separate from the consciousness and self-awareness displayed by the mind. The body is not conscious nor self-aware, therefore (according to Descartes’s reasoning), it is separate and distinct from the mind. The Roman-Catholic Church jumped onto this theory, ordering Descartes, as a scientist, to focus his research on the human body (anatomy) only, while claiming dominion over the mind and soul for the Church. Thus, the separation of mind and body was official … and official is not always right – just think – slavery and human trafficking was official at that time too, but I digress.
Many mind-body ideas were rooted in the Judaeo-Christian tradition. When no obvious cause was apparent for illness, especially mental illness, the Church mandated exorcisms to rid the body of the “demons” that “possessed” it. The success of some of these ritualized exorcisms could be attributed to the power of suggestion offered by an authority figure (the priest, or in modern times, the hypnotist or psychotherapist) using an imperative command or series of commands. Faith healing has its roots squarely in the power of positive thinking and belief, and psychoanalysis (talk therapy) is rooted in the healing power of the Church’s ritual of confession.
Whatever any man does he first must do with his mind, whose machinery is the brain. The mind can do only what the brain is equipped to do, and so man must find out what kind of brain he has before he can understand his own behavior. – Gay Gaer Luce and Julius Skegal
Mind vs Brain
Dr. Joe Dispenza says that mind is the brain in action. Using a computer analogy, we can equate the brain to being the hardware and the mind to being the software. The brain, with all its structures, neurons, synapses, cells, sulci, gyri, fissures, layers, etc. is the physical, touchable, dissectible hardware in the skull. The mind, however, is the programmable set of mental states which include thoughts, images, emotions, beliefs, habits, and attitudes encountered consciously or unconsciously. Often we experience unexplained emotional reactions to events. Every mental state has a specific positive or negative physiology associated with it which is felt in the body. Anger causes the heart to speed up, blood pressure to rise, breathing becomes more shallow and faster, the palms sweat. However, feelings of love will calm us down, drop the heart rate and blood pressure, allowing us to breathe slower and deeper.
Each hemisphere of the brain has its own mind. The left mind analyzes, organizes, adds, subtracts, talks, and communicates. The right mind connects, takes perspective, imagines, relates, and appreciates. Both minds are designed to work together and live in harmony, unless the body is under stress, and all communication breaks down. Then the most preferred mental state takes over and rules supreme. The analytical thinker will become very rigid and structured, whereas the imaginative thinker will float above it all and not make sense to anyone.
The mind and body are like parallel universes. Anything that happens in the mental universe must leave tracks in the physical one. – Deepak Chopra
Nature vs Nurture
Aristotle likened the infant human brain to a tabula rasa or “clean slate”. Nothing could be further from the truth. However, the genetics inherited from Mom and Dad do not dictate a predestined and unchangeable pattern of behavior with regards to thinking, feeling, acting, or reacting either. Genetic traits are hardwired into the brain during gestation and also during the first year of life. The fetus is wired according to the genetic information received from both parents and their parents and their parents right down the familial genetic line. That is the nature part of the equation. The nurture part is equally important. Mom and Dad’s nutritional health and stress levels preconception, influence the health and development of the ovum and spermatozoon. Mom’s stress and nutritional levels during pregnancy will determine the size of the frontal lobes of the brain, physical musculature (the dumb jock type when Mom has high levels of stress), and inherited genetic synaptic connections to mention just a few influences.
Nature and nurture are equally important to both the body and the brain, and inherently also affect the mind-body connection. In his book “Evolve Your Brain”, Dr. Joe Dispenza says, “The genetic neural circuitry that we inherit also carries the encoded memories of learned experiences from our lineage. Our parents, grandparents, and even great-grandparents stand as immediate contributors to our pre-wired genetic brain matter by the ways in which they shaped and molded their brains through life’s experiences.” Dr. Joe continues by saying: “Learning takes place when nature is nurtured; evolution happens when what is nurtured gives back to nature. This is the cycle of life.” In other words, we are able to change when we learn something new and when we evolve because of applying the new learned material (way of being), we “transmute” (transform) our genes.
Every negative belief weakens the partnership between mind and body. – Deepak Chopra
Our state of being is determined by where and on what we focus our attention. We become neurologically what we think repeatedly and where we focus our attention. For example, by focusing attention on pain in the body, makes it exist, and wires the brain neurologically to develop more acute awareness of pain perception. Brain cells are continually remolded and reorganized by thoughts and experiences. Therefore, we can change our brains by thought alone; mental rehearsal will grow and mold new circuits in the brain.
The body has an innate intelligence that runs from the midbrain and other subcortical brain regions to the body using the central nervous system. This intelligence (blood and lymph circulation, digestion, waste removal, healing, etc.) operates at the subconscious level. However, this intelligence can only work and heal to the degree allowed by the genetic programming in place. The brain is connected to the environment through the body, therefore, the environment also has an influence on our genes. This branch of study is called epigenetics. There is a chiropractic saying: “The power that made the body, heals the body”. Mind and body are not separate, they are one.
Of the different types of memory, episodic memory, which records experiences, enrich the brain by forming the strongest, most long-lasting synaptic connections. Episodic memories involve the senses and therefore, by extension, the mind and the body. Knowledge (semantic memory) feeds the mind through the brain, but experience (episodic memory) feeds the mind through the body because of all the bodily senses involved. Every experience provokes a feeling or emotion, and every feeling or emotion is felt in the body (not the brain). Dr. Joe Dispenza calls feelings chemical memories and feelings link the body to the mind. Albert Einstein said: “Information is not knowledge. The only source of knowledge is experience. You need experience to gain wisdom.” Mahatma Gandhi said: “Knowledge gained through experience is far superior and more useful than bookish knowledge”. Why is this important? Experience is processed through the mind-body link.
To remember things better (longterm memory storage), Jim Kwik (from Kwik Learning) recommends that we change our mental state by changing either our psychology or physiology. Self-talk determines focus, emotional state, and how you feel (psychology). How you move your body affects your physiology. One of Jim’s catchy phrases applies here: “As your body moves, your brain grooves”. When your body moves, levels of neurotrophins are influenced and your brain produces the protein BDNF (Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor) which promotes the proliferation, function, and survival of neurons. Jim calls BDNF fertilizer for the brain. This is the body-mind connection in action.
The Vagus Nerve
The vagus nerve is the 10th and longest of the 12 cranial nerves. The vagus originates in the brainstem and cerebellum, and then connects to the majority of organs in the thorax and abdominal cavity. Dr. Stephen Porges describes the vagus nerve as a conduit or cable that connects the brain to the body. It is part of the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS – the rest-and-digest system). The majority of the nerve fibers in the vagus nerve (80%) are sensory fibers with some motor neurons. It is the portal from the periphery to the brain and informs the brain about the state of the body. The vagus connects the gastrointestinal tract to the brain, also called the “gut-brain connection”. Parts of the vagus nerve are myelinated (insulated with a fatty sheath) making it a good conduit for communication. The unmyelinated sections regulate the organs above and below the diaphragm.
Actually, the vagus nerve is paired which means it has two branches, one on each side of the body. It is called “vagus” because it meanders and wanders between the organs like a vagrant. The vagus is credited as the main player in the mind-body connection due to its role as mediator between thoughts and feelings. Got a “gut feeling” about something? Well, “trust your gut”, because your vagus is talking to you.
As I said before, the vagus nerve is part of the PNS, and stimulating it will combat stress by deactivating the sympathetic nervous system (SNS – the fight-or-flight stress response). You can have your foot on either the gas pedal (SNS) or the brake pedal (PNS), but not on both at the same time. The quickest and easiest way to stimulate the PNS via the vagus nerve, is to breathe deeply and slowly. On the inhale, the sensory nodes on the lungs send information to the brain via the vagus nerve, that the lungs are being filled with lots of air. The brain interprets this action as the body feeling safe and that the danger/stress has passed. On the exhale, the brain then sends a message back down the vagus nerve to the heart to beat slower and to the abdominal organs to relax and restart digestion. It is interesting to note that the heart beats faster on the inhale and slower on the exhale. We can thus conclude that the exhalation stimulates the relaxation response and the vagal tone, when vagal activity is at its highest.
“Vagal tone” refers to how well the vagus nerve functions and how healthy it is. One way to determine vagal tone is by measuring heart rate variability (HRV). HRV refers to the fluctuation of the heart rate between the inhalation (heart beats faster) and the exhalation (heart beats slower). The difference between those two rates determines vagal tone. Sportsmen have higher vagal tone than astronauts in a non-gravity environment or couch potatoes. This is because a good marker for vagal tone is how fast an elevated heart rate returns to normal. Vagus nerve stimulation has actually been proposed as a way to treat addiction, because addicts have been found to have low vagal tone.
Proven ways to stimulate the vagus nerve and improve vagal tone, apart from deep, slow breathing, include the following:
- Cold water – Splash the face with cold water or when in the shower, alternate between periods of warm water (2-3 minutes) followed by 20-30 seconds of cold water. Repeat this process three times. This will also aid mitochondrial function in the cells.
- Gargling – After brushing your teeth or when in the shower, sip some water and gargle vigorously for up to 2 minutes. A good measure to know whether you are gargling vigorously enough, is that your eyes will start watering.
- Singing, Humming, Chanting – The purpose here is to vibrate the throat. Sing out loud and hold those high notes for as long as you can. The added benefit here is that you have to breathe in deeply and control the exhalation for as long as you can. So shower-singers, if they try to shut you up, tell them you’re toning your vagus!
- Laughing, Coughing – My absolute favorite is a good, deep belly laugh. A forceful belly cough (and laugh) vibrates the throat and forces exhalation which de-excites the SNS.
- Yoga, Qigong, Tai Chi – The deep breathing while moving slowly through poses also de-excites the SNS.
- Meditation, Mindfulness, Prayer – Taking deep breaths and maintaining attention in the moment, de-excites the SNS.
The cells in your body react to everything that your mind says. Negativity brings down your immune system. – Loretta Lanphier
Placebos & Nocebos
The definition of a placebo is “a substance having no pharmacological effect but given merely to satisfy a patient who supposes it to be a medicine”. A nocebo is “an inactive substance or a real medication that produces unpleasant or worsening symptoms in a patient or research participant because the person expects negative effects”. “Mind over matter” is the same as “mind over body” when it comes to placebos and nocebos. When the subject pays more for a cheaper, simpler painkiller, its pain killing effects are touted as more effective than a more expensive, complex painkiller sold cheaper. More expensive has to be better, right? At least, that is what the majority believe, and when it comes to the mind-body connection, belief trumps all. The fact remains that placebos and nocebos work because of the belief the patient connects to them, positive or negative. In general, red pills are more effective than blue pills, although blue “sedatives” work better than pink “sedatives”. In another study, blue sedatives worked well for women, but acted as a stimulant for men. Now we know why that famous sexual stimulant is blue! Wounds heal sooner when covered with a plaster (band aid) with the child’s favorite cartoon character on it. Placebos that smell medicinal give better results, as do placebos that come out of a brown bottle, and those with a technical-sounding name.
Culture affects beliefs. Beliefs are formed by classical conditioning and expectancy among others, both of which affect placebo outcomes. Different cultures use different expressions, even when they speak the same language. In the USA, where expressions like “getting a shot” abound, injections are more effective than taking tablets. The opposite is true in the UK, where “popping a pill” gets the job done.
Our conditioning and belief, consciously and subconsciously, that a pill or injection will cure us, even if it is an open label placebo. Mind-body, rooted in belief …. nothing is stronger than that! What heals is the mind, not the brain, because the mind is where the belief resides, and the body follows the mind.
Your worst enemy cannot harm you as much as your own thoughts, unguarded. – Buddha
The Brain, the Body, and Stress
The central nervous system (CNS), which includes the brain and spinal cord, the peripheral nervous system, the immune system, the endocrine system, all the organs of the body, all the thoughts and subsequent emotional responses, communicate using the same chemical language. The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is integrated with structures in the upper brainstem, and the hypothalamus, insula, amygdala, anterior cingulate cortex (structures in the limbic brain where emotions are processed), to integrate bodily sensations with emotion to generate homeostatic autonomic responses.
The body’s stress response utilizes direct links between the cerebral cortex, sympathetic nervous system, and the adrenal glands, specifically the inner core of the adrenal glands known as the adrenal medulla. The adrenal medulla is the interface between neural (nerves) and hormonal (endocrine) communication. It is modified neural tissue, hence the ability to be regulated by direct neural input. The hormones (called catecholamines – norepinephrine, epinephrine, dopamine) produced by the adrenal medulla are released directly into the blood which carries the hormones to the sites where they are needed. These catecholamines are fast-acting and short-lived, which is what is needed in fight-or-flight situations. Researchers found that multiple domains (physiological and psychological) all over the cerebral cortex linked to the adrenal medulla, affecting the mind and body from decision-making to movement to emotions to the core muscles that extend from the base of the head to the pelvis. Therefore, the core muscles can actually impact stress and vice versa. Now we know how yoga, breath work, Pilates, exercise in general, and meditation help to reduce stress by relaxing the core muscles. Elite athletes are trained to release the mistakes they may make during a match or the execution of a movement. If they should replay the mistake in their mind, they would activate the stress response which in turn would activate the adrenal medulla which would release catecholamines putting them in fight-or-flight. Bye-bye gold medal! This is the body-mind, mind-body connection in action!
Your body exists in the past and your mind exists in the future. In yoga, they come together in the present. – B.K.S. Iyengar
The Cerebellum’s Role in Movement, Learning, Emotions, and Language
Movement, learning, language and emotions share a couple of brain structures within the mind-body connective pathway. One of the most important structures is the cerebellum. The body’s postural muscles, the core muscles that keep us upright, activate the cerebellum which in turn activates the motor cortex. The cerebellum controls the timing (rhythm) and muscle activation sequences during movement. The interesting thing here is that body posture affects how the brain in activated. Bad posture means less brain activation and that equals difficulty to learn and move. Next time that you want to remember something, put yourself in the exact same body position that you were in when you studied the facts or executed what you are trying to remember.
The frontal lobe houses the motor cortex and the prefrontal cortex. The cerebellum talks to the motor cortex, and then the motor cortex talks to the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex generates and regulates many emotions. Individuals with ADHD, Anti-Social Personality Disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder, and those who have difficulty managing stress, have smaller frontal lobes. Striking a “power pose” for two minutes will raise testosterone levels and reduce cortisol (stress hormone), resulting in better focus and self-confidence. Amy Cuddy’s TED talk on non-verbal expressions of power and dominance is listed below.
The cerebellum is pivotal in verbal fluency, grammar processing, correct language usage, and writing skills. It is characterized by linguistic lateralization, which means that the cerebellum’s right hemisphere and dentate nucleus are heavily involved in linguistic abilities. This area has multiple cerebellocortical connections with the language areas located in the cerebral cortex (usually in the left hemisphere of the brain). Remember that I mentioned before that the vagus nerve originates in the brainstem and cerebellum? Well, the vagus nerve acts like a super highway between the mind and the body. Verbal fluency and language usage are processed by the cerebellum, which means that the words we use, especially when speaking to ourselves (self-talk) affect our bodies directly. What others say to us can only affect us if we process and accept what they say. Therefore, our words can make us or break us.
The words you speak become the house you live in. – Hafiz
Your mind eavesdrops on your self-talk. Thoughts are things and therefore, have an immediate impact on the body. This immediate physical response always has an emotion or two to back it up. Do you constantly downplay your successes, or do you feel that you’re not enough, or do you make yourself small, or feel guilty about enjoying life’s small pleasures? Is your job “killing” you, or your boss “driving you nuts”, or are your kids “making you sick and tired”? Be careful, because you get to keep the limitations that you fight for. If you argue for your limitations, they become yours. The first thing to do regarding limiting beliefs and negative self-talk is to be aware that you have them. To counter limiting beliefs and negative self-talk, self-edit/audit yourself by adding the word “yet” to the end of negative sentences: “I cannot do this, yet”. Adults have to be very careful with the external words they use directed at children, because those external words become the victim’s internal words, external labels become their limiting beliefs.
If you change your thoughts it can change your life. Change the words that you use when dialoguing with yourself, and literally change your life! Words make images in our mind’s eye and the color and emotion are added by the words we use before the words (the adjectives, adverbs, and expletives). The mind’s job is to keep you alive, not to keep you happy, and it does it by making you repeat what is familiar. The negativity bias of the mind means that it is always searching for what can go wrong, not for what can go right. Your survival depends on it!
Everything that you say to yourself imprints on the mind. Thoughts control feelings and feelings are a result of thoughts. Feelings control actions and actions control events. So, it all goes back to controlling the thoughts. Change your thoughts and your feelings will change. When your feelings change, your actions will change, and that will change events.
It’s a human need to feel in control, but it’s a complete fallacy. There is no control. The only thing you can control is your thoughts. Your thoughts control your feelings. Your feelings control your actions, and your actions control your events. So if you change your thinking, you change everything. – Marisa Peer
Every thought that we have affects every molecule in the body. When the mind is racing with one thought banging into another, focus on your breath, executing it deeply and rhythmically. The breath will calm the mind and return it to the peaceful present moment where there is no depression about the past nor anxiety about the future. The ideal most calming way to breathe is a repetition of six breaths a minute: five seconds in, five seconds out. Meditators using a mantra naturally lapse into this style of slow breathing, as do those practicing a rosary prayer.
Neurons are found in the heart (called the heart-brain) and in the digestive tract (called the gut-brain) and both communicate with the brain directly via the vagus nerve. Therefore, the brain is literally in the body. If you take care of your thoughts, feelings, emotions, and stress levels, your body will thank you. By that same token, if you take care of moving enough, eating nutritiously, and being mindful of your body postures, your mind will reciprocate. Don’t leave your thoughts unguarded – guard them as if your life depends on it, because it does! Your mind and body will thank you.