January 26th, 2011
05:23 PM ET
Dr. Charles Raison, CNNHealth's Mental Health expert and an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Emory University, writes regularly on the mind-body connection for better health.
My 82-year old-mom should be a poster child for the power of the mind. Wracked with a debilitating and progressive neurological condition that has made her barely able to stand, she nonetheless manages to lean on her walker and shuffle out to her car every Sunday morning, and then drive 30 miles to attend church. Not just any church, but the only New-Age type church within a hundred-mile radius that believes—what else?—that you can change reality through the power of positive thinking.
Those of us who do research in the field of mind-body medicine often seem to be not so different from my mom. Much of our work focuses on ways in which the mind can affect the body for good or ill. While we wouldn’t make claims as outrageously hopeful as my mom’s church, scientific studies increasingly demonstrate that the mind can indeed be very powerful in terms of health outcomes.
I’m as impressed by these findings as anyone, but am also something of a contrarian in the field. Our research group has spent the last decade studying exactly the opposite phenomenon, which is the remarkable power the body has over the mind. In this spirit, I thought I’d share two recent studies that really bring home the degree to which our minds can be influenced by physical factors completely beyond our conscious awareness
Have you ever noticed how many more words we have for visual experiences than for smells, despite the fact that of all the sense, smell can most powerfully remind us of good or bad times and places in our past? The reason for this is because smell is far more ancient and primitive than sight. As such it is especially likely to cause feelings and behaviors that we don’t recognize and don’t understand.
In the first study researchers showed women sad films and collected their tears. They also collected salt water after they’d dripped it down the same women’s faces. In a series of experiments they showed that even though men did not see the women cry, and even though they could not smell a difference between the tears and the salt water, these fellows had powerful unconscious reactions to the tears. When shown pictures of sexy women the men were not as stimulated after sniffing the tears and they produced less testosterone—the primary male sex hormone—after sniffing tears. Finally, studies have identified areas of the male brain that become active when shown sexually arousing images. When they showed these types of images to men in a brain scanner while sniffing the women’s tears, the male subject’s brains became less aroused when compared to the activity observed in the same men after smelling the salt water.
In a second study researchers collected sweat from men just prior to a first-time skydive and during regular exercise. Of course, the men were tremendously stressed out prior to the skydive as compared with a regular exercise period. Researchers then recruited other men and showed pictures to them while monitoring how their brain responded to the images. In one condition these men smelled sweat from the stressed out first time skydivers and in the other they smelled the exercise-induced sweat, while being completely unaware of which sweat came from where. Remarkably when smelling the stressed out sweat, the research subjects showed anxiety-like brain reactions to faces that seemed completely neutral to them while smelling the exercise sweat. This shows that just smelling the sweat of a nervous person can make our brains go on high danger alert.
So what are the take-home points in terms of our health and well-being? Don’t cry if you want to have sex and stay away from stressed-out people if you want to avoid feeling nervous yourself? I suppose so, but my interest in these types of studies goes deeper because they point to a way that mind-body science can help us live more balanced lives.
While most of us who are interested in the field have benefited from the proof it provides regarding how important it is to cultivate positive social relationships and emotional well-being, we can take these insights too far and get down on ourselves if we don’t meet our self-imposed (or sometimes culturally imposed) standards. In fact, the new mind-body also encourages us to accept our limitations with modesty, but without apology. We should have patience with ourselves when we feel nervous for no reason or when we are in a moment when sexual passion is called for but not available. After all, our conscious selves are only one small part of the far larger wholes that we are. Although often unaware of it, we are profoundly affected by all sorts of things registered in our bodies and ancient reptilian brains. But one of the surest ways to enhance conscious control of our lives is to recognize how much of what we are is invisible to us.
So the next time you find yourself anxious for no reason or sexually turned off when you should be turned on, stop for a moment and think of all the remarkable ways your strange behavior can come from parts of ourselves we don’t know. And cut yourself a break!
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