Mind-body: The connections in tears, sweat
January 26th, 2011
05:23 PM ET

Mind-body: The connections in tears, sweat

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!

soundoff (10 Responses)
  1. Thom

    Beat Cancer Forever!!!

    Phoenix Man Runs 60km on his 60th Birthday For Cancer
    To support John go to: http://www.60on60.com
    You can make a donation in the name of your loved one.

    TOTAL 60 km = 37 mi. & 496.7 yd, YIKES! 14 hours
    I’ve determined my goal for my 60th birthday will be a 60K (60 km = 37 miles & 496.7 yards) on January 29th, 2011. I’m going to Run/Walk 60 kilometers on the Arizona Canal. We are still working on the exact course and logistics of “Partner Points”, areas where people that want to support me can meet me for a few miles of hiking and/or jogging to keep me company and to make sure I am not floating face down in the canal. My tentative course will start at Herberger Park on Indian School and 58th Street and travel west toward the Peoria Sports Complex to about 67th Avenue and back again.

    January 26, 2011 at 21:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. paul

    Sounds like his mother is a threat to other drivers. Get the old hag off the road.

    January 26, 2011 at 21:53 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Peace

      You say something that insulting and expect to be taken seriously?

      January 28, 2011 at 04:48 | Report abuse |
  3. SoundGuy

    Explore more about how to positively influence your state of consciousness using sounds here: http://www.transcendentaltones.com

    January 27, 2011 at 01:53 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Bob Ellal

    Qigong—Chinese mind/body exercises–helped me immensely in my successful battles with four bouts of supposedly terminal bone lymphoma cancer in the early nineties. I practiced standing post meditation, one of the most powerful forms of qigong–as an adjunct to chemotherapy, which is how it should always be used.
    Qigong kept me strong in many ways: it calmed my mind–taking me out of the fight-or-flight syndrome, which pumps adrenal hormones into the system that could interfere with healing. The deep abdominal breathing pumped my lymphatic system—a vital component of the immune system. In addition, qigong energized and strengthened my body at a time when I couldn't do Western exercise such as weight-lifting or jogging–the chemo was too fatiguing. And it empowered my will and reinforced it every day with regular practice. In other words, I contributed to the healing process, instead of just depending solely on the chemo and the doctors. Clear 14 years and still practicing!

    January 27, 2011 at 09:01 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Jon

    Have you ever heard about some animal's being able to smell fear? When we feel threatened, we give off a pheromone that silently warns other members of the group.
    Apparently our sweat glands used to be scent glands. We have more sweat glands in our feet than in any other comparable area of skin. Our ancestors used that to find each other and to retrace their steps back to the pack.

    January 27, 2011 at 09:09 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. razzlea


    January 27, 2011 at 10:02 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Kookla, Fran and Ollie

    This woman needs to be taken off the road before she kills somebody. No doubt she is a menace to society, not to mention other drivers.

    January 28, 2011 at 08:32 | Report abuse | Reply
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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.