By Devanshi Saxena
Cogito ergo sum or “I think, therefore I am”. This philosophical proposition by René Descartes emphasizes the unsurmountable power of our thought. Thought determines our emotions and actions and thus exercises enormous control over our biological system. Both mind and body constantly interact in response to the emotions. Our mood influences our behaviour in a myriad of ways, dampening our experience of pain when our emotions are positive and exaggerating when our emotions are negative. As explained by Passer and Smith, “Emotions are feeling (or affect) states that involve a pattern of cognitive, physiological, and behavioural reactions to events.”
In the world of science, researchers have shown that thinking leads to the release of neurotransmitters from the brain. Neurotransmitters are the chemical messengers of our body that essentially control every physiological process in the human body. More detailed research to assess the potential of thoughts to influence our mood may help in developing better forms of therapy for the treatment of psychiatric illness.
The placebo effect
Studies have shown that our thoughts can greatly influence our physical fitness, strength and vision. The Placebo effect, for example, is one such effect that relies on the psychologic effects of sham treatments. Research into the Placebo effect now aims to decode the neurobiological mechanisms behind it.
A very general example of the mind-body connection from our daily experience is how our thought can negatively affect our overall physical health. It is well known that overthinking under conditions of extreme strain may disturb our sleep-wake cycle and disturb the functioning of our ‘biological-clock.’ Our brains are sculpted by the thoughts that flow through it.
London cab-driver studies
Emotions rely on neural regions in the brain. These can become stronger over time in response to certain patterns of thought and can develop to be increasingly sensitive. One example of how this happens is the well-known London cab driver studies, which have shown that a part of the brain called the hippocampus—which is responsible for long-term memory—becomes much larger in cab-drivers as compared to the brains of the non-cab drivers. Their brains literally expanded to accommodate the cognitive demands of navigating London’s endless jumbled routes.
It could be said that our mindset is recognised and reflected by our body. This endows us with the power to influence our physical realities, even at the genetic level. Therefore, improved mental habits may be of valuable assistance in maintaining overall health. For example, researchers have also noted the beneficial effects of meditation in achieving a healthy lifestyle. Meditational practices are reported to have produced measurable results, from changes in the volume of grey matter to enhanced connectivity between different regions of the brain.
The brain’s interpretation of pain
Neuroscience Professor David Linden, from John Hopkins University, has explained how the pain perceived by our senses is controlled and directed by complex and intricate circuitry in the brain. Linden explains it further in more basic terms, “The brain can say—Hey that’s interesting. Turn up the volume on this pain information that’s coming in. Or it can say—No, turn down the volume on that and pay less attention to it.”
Our brain is structured to process two types of sensory perceptions, the physical and the emotional. This becomes crucial in the study of pain management. If the exact cause that triggers the brain’s response to injury is ascertained then this may open the door to more reliable treatments for certain psychiatric illnesses.
According to recent research published in the American Psychologist, the effects of poorly controlled pain can accumulate over time and aggravate any other existing conditions, while positive thoughts can also grow to build up resistance to such maladies. The more you tweak your perspective and focus on the positive rather than giving in to your negative tendencies, the stronger your emotional resilience becomes.
The power of positivity
Dr Barbara Fredrickson has worked extensively in the field of positive psychology and has authored his observations in the book Positivity. Fredrickson has emphasised how the mind requires at least “three major positive experiences” to build up a positive effect on the body. In order to deal effectively with painful encounters, it is important to cultivate a positive and optimistic outlook by deeply analysing each of the three positive experiences.
The intricate connection between body and mind has it has roots in the structure of the brain. The experiences that we have occur at different levels of our physical, mental and emotional makeup. These levels are all interconnected, therefore, an experience relating to a certain mental level spontaneously activates our physical and emotional levels as well. This implies that our responses to stimulation are not just limited to the mental level but also affect the emotional and physical levels.
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