January 13th, 2011
04:11 PM ET
Maybe it’s because many of us have so much stuff and so many opportunities to satisfy our desires that we crave something more, something deeper, something that would give our lives touch of transcendent meaning. As a society we’ve come to the point at which more possessions or more fame, or more fortune don’t bring any more happiness. We feel it in our stress levels and know we need something beyond.
Throughout history this yearning for “something more” has been the province of religion, but in the last generation or so, science has entered this domain with impressive results. In fact, if we knew as much about treating cancer as we do about the science of health and happiness we’d be tempted to pronounce the disease cured.
Yet most people know almost nothing about this amazing scientific and medical explosion. This always amazes me, but then I have to remind myself that I know the science of health and happiness only because it is my job.
Starting today on The Chart at CNN.com, we're going to share some of this amazing information with you.
When I tell people that I am a psychiatrist who treats mental illness, but studies the immune system, they usually scratch their heads in confusion because the immune system and the mental world don’t seem to go together. But they do, and the fact that they do has given me and my colleagues an amazing vantage point for understanding how the brain and the body work together to produce disease or well-being, resilience or defeat. Moving forward, I hope to share this vantage point with you in ways that will provide simple, clear options for improving your own health and well-being.
When I tell people I am a psychiatrist who for years got much of his funding from the Department of Religion they again look at me in confusion because religion and science are so often at odds with each other. But when it comes to health and well-being, it turns out that much of what science has discovered validates many ancient spiritual beliefs. I’ve been fortunate in my career to “cash in” on this fact by exploring how ancient meditative practices can be brought to bear to heal mind and body in the modern world. Working with inspirational figures like His Holiness the Dalai Lama has given me a profound sense of gratitude that we don’t have to throw our rational brains out the window when it comes to exploring how the life of the spirit can be used to better our lives.
Each of these posts will be structured around research that provide exciting new perspectives on mind-body issues. So let's start with this example. Have you ever noticed that when you are in physical pain you are more likely to be down and irritable than at other times? Ever noticed that when you are stressed, down or anxious you are more likely to feel pains in your body than at other times?
If not, count yourself either young, lucky or both. For the rest of us, our experiences go along with lots of data showing that physical pain increases the chances of feeling emotional pain, and vice versa. Said more formally, depression is a risk factor for aches and pains in the body, and aches and pains in the body are a risk factor for depression.
Why should this be? Most of us think of the body and brain as very mysterious and complicated, which they are. But in other ways they do things in a very literal and clunky fashion, and the connection between physical and emotional pain is a great example of this. These seemingly very different types of pain overlap because they share the same brain areas. Studies show that exactly the same brain areas light up in the scanner when people are exposed to emotional pain as when they are exposed to physical pain.
In particular there is a brain region called the anterior cingulated cortex, or ACC for short, which fires up whether you are snubbed by other people or subjected to a physical pain.
The physical pain in these experiments was electric shock applied to the hand. The emotional pain was supplied by an ingenious little computer game subjects played in the scanner. Subjects were shown a computer screen and told that all they had to do was toss a little “cyberball” on the screen back and forth to two other players who were also on the computer in the other room. At first the ball tossing goes well but at a certain point the subject no longer gets the ball tossed to him or her by the other “players.”
This exclusion is all a sham because there are no other players—just a computer program designed to make the subjects feel left out. Even though it is only a game it must remind people of life back on the playground because people get upset. Remarkably, the more upset they get the more that pain center in the brain—the ACC—lights up.
So all this suggested a very ingenious experiment to researchers at UCLA. If physical pain and emotional pain share the same brain areas, maybe giving a painkiller would make people less sensitive to being rejected by other people. So the researchers randomized a group of people to receive either acetaminophen (brand name Tylenol) or a placebo pill. Neither the researchers nor the subjects knew who got what, but the people who got Tylenol began to report that they were less hurt by the way people treated them in their daily lives.
And after 3 weeks of either Tylenol or placebo all the subjects played the “cyberball” game in the brain scanner, and lo and behold the people who had received Tylenol showed much less activation of the ACC in their brains.
I’m not sure that the take-home message from all this is that we should be taking Tylenol to keep from getting our feelings hurt, but rather that science is beginning to show logical explanations for many features of our lives that have been previously mysterious, such as why my stomach hurts when I get stressed out.
Mind, body, spirit. Resilience, vulnerability, happiness and misery, health and disease. We'll explore these topics and more in the coming weeks and months, always with an eye to the most recent and exciting scientific discoveries.
Dr. Charles Raison, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Emory University, is CNNHealth's Mental Health expert. He answers viewer questions on Tuesdays. Watch for future posts on the mind-body connection for better health.
About this blog
Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.