The Rolfing community, as well as many other complementary therapy communities, has long claimed that the health of the mind and of the body are inextricably linked. To many people raised in the western world, that has been considered a laughable and downright absurd proposition best left to the gullible and uneducated for consumption. Dualism – the idea that the mind and body are totally separate and that the body has no effect on the mind – has simply been too ingrained as a fundamental philosophical tenet for fruitful discussion to occur. But change has occurred and western medicine is now recognizing monism as a functional and useful reality.
In essence, it has been recognized that the structures and processes of the body give rise to the dynamic process known as mind, and the process of mind affects the structure and processes of the body.
Mood controlling pharmaceuticals like Prozac, Valium, and Ritalin all affect the body’s chemistry to modulate the way the mind functions. Neuroscience has identified regions of the brain (a part of the body) that are responsible for the development of memories, the identification of emotions in others, and the ability to have emotional expressions of one’s own. And recent research on the effects of insight meditation have shown how subtly yet obviously the mind and body affect each other.
Even to the most casual observer, it’s hard to argue that there is any sort of boundary between mind and body, but the myth persists, and it will likely only be a matter of time before monism becomes the widespread paradigm of healthcare.
The theory of Dualism was famously proposed by Rene Descartes in his statement, “I think, therefore I am” in the treatise A Discourse on the Method. As a philosopher, a physiologist, and a mathematician, his work has had a profound effect on the way our lives look today (you may thank him for such topics as analytical geometry), and I am making no attempt to denigrate the importance of his life’s work, merely acknowledging the roots from which the mind-body split arose.
For over 300 years, Western philosophy and medicine built upon Descartes’ claim that the mind was a formless, shapeless, ephemeral thing and that the body was a mechanical substrate/tool for the mind. In his formulation, the mind could affect the body, but the body could have no effect on the mind. There was a one-way street from mind to body, and nothing could travel back the other way.
For many, this idea turned into an even more substantial boundary between mind and body, wherein the mind had no effect on the body, and the body no effect on the mind. This is like saying, “the way I think doesn’t affect the way I move.” Anyone who’s ever plied herself at a task requiring concentration can tell you what a fallacy that statement is. Further, recent research has shown conclusively how strongly mind can affect body. A study conducted by Kyoto University and the National Institute of Physiological Sciences in Japan demonstrated how expectations of pain influence the response to an innocuous stimulus. Another study done at Canada’s Tom Baker Cancer Centre tracked patient outcomes for those with breast and prostate cancer and found that mindfulness based meditation “altered cortisol and immune patterns consistent with less stress and mood disturbance, and decreased blood pressure.”
The converse is “the way I move doesn’t affect the way I think.” I don’t think I need cite studies to support this as there are very simple everyday examples that show this statement to be false (for these to work, you must actually follow the directions and not think about them abstractly!). If you’ve ever had an injury, think back to the way your thought processes slanted during that time. Depression and anxiety are commonly associated with pain and immobility of any sort. If you’ve not had an injury that you can think back to, try this exercise. Put a frown on your face. A real frown. See how long it takes before a sad image comes to mind. Alternatively, go dance. Find a room where no one is looking and really dance. See what happens to your mood.
Descartes was a great supporter of the scientific method, and the investigations of science have taken us a long way since histime. It has taken centuries, but the strength and weakness of scientific inquiry is that we are limited by what we can measure, what we have measured, and what we think we can measure. It’s taken time to realize we can conceivably measure, want to measure, and then be able to measure the inner workings of the mind-body. But now, the scientific method has demonstrated that even the mundane and invisible functions of the body absolutely affect the mind.