SCIENCE | Psychology | Mind Body Connection
IS FOOD ITSELF THE ANSWER TO SUSTAINING A GOOD AND HEALTHY LIFE, OR IS IT THE PROBLEM?
The list of good food and ingredients expands and contracts depending on the scribe. One dietician’s poison is another TV nutritionist’s miracle food. These lists sometimes seem to have more to do with our attitudes and beliefs about food than their actual health benefits. As it turns out, how we view our food, and in particular how we view ourselves, may be as important an ingredient to healthy living as the very food we eat.
For centuries, clinicians had a holistic approach and considered the linking of mental and physical health as inter-reliant. The power and the influence of emotions lost favor as the causes of illness, bacteria, and toxins emerged and new treatments such as antibiotics and pharmacological methods were relied upon to cure illnesses. In many ways, the influence of the mind upon the body was minimized.
At present, there is more attention paid to the mind-body connection. The Office of Behavioral and Social Science Research at the National Institute of Health asserts “the field of mind-body research has indeed expanded” and has established the Mind-Body Interactions and Health (MBIH) Program with a congressional mandate to expand research on the interactions among the brain, mind, body, and behavior. The MBIH designed to dive deep into the mechanisms by which factors such as the emotions, cognitions, and attitudes, as well as social and behavioral phenomena directly affect physical and mental health. The analyses support the conclusion that mind-body research is reviewed more regularly in mainstream medical journals—another signal of the growing acceptance of this field within the scientific community.
So what are the key ingredients to “feeling good”—does it originate in your mind, your body, or from a mélange of both?
There are many whose work may be driving the increased interest in the psychological and biological connections.
Dr. Mary-Frances O’Connor, assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Arizona, has worked assiduously on bereaved populations and the psychological syndromes such as “broken heart syndrome” or “widowhood effect” and “complicated grief.” O’Connor said in a telephone interview that her scientific interest is principally focused on emotions and understanding emotions at the experiential and physiological levels. O’Connor studies how the physiological responses to grief and bereavement impact health and has found that there are profound changes in the body when one is processing the information about loss and bereavement. The mind-body connection is absolutely present when we suffer loss and grief and can induce significant changes in the body, such as increasing stress-induced hormones. O’Connor utilizes techniques that include novel ways to evoke emotion, especially grief, using personalized stimuli, reaction-time paradigms, written emotional disclosure, and virtual worlds. O’Connor notes that a clinical-science approach to the experience and physiology of grief can improve psychological treatment. This is most relevant to complicated grief, a disorder following bereavement that is marked by intense, persistent, and prolonged symptoms. Yearning is the hallmark symptom of this disorder, and her work focuses on a deep understanding of the causes and effects of this emotion at the psychological and physiological levels of analysis.
When there is a persistent sense of longing, it brings stress and pain. It’s clear that if you are constantly under stress or feeling depressed or anxious, your mental state could contribute a dire impact upon your physical health. However, Stanford University psychologist Kelly McGonigal, who is working in the field of “science help” and the correlation between psychology and biology, has a countervailing view on a new science of stress; she asserts that how you think about stress and your attitude in reaction to stress may have a significant impact on your health and life. Dr. McGonigal straddles the worlds of research and practice, holding positions in both the Stanford Graduate School of Business and the School of Medicine. Her book The Willpower Instinct explores the latest research on motivation, temptation, and procrastination, as well as what it takes to transform habits, persevere through challenges, and make successful changes. She emphasizes that “the old understanding of stress as an unhelpful relic of our animal instincts is being replaced by the understanding that stress actually makes us socially smart—it’s what allows us to be fully human.” See Kelly McGonigal’s 2013 TED talk on “How to Make Stress Your Friend.”
Carol S. Dweck, Ph.D., Lewis and Virginia Eaton professor of psychology at Stanford University, links developmental psychology, social psychology, and personality psychology and examines the self-conceptions (or mindsets) people use to structure the self and guide their behavior. Dr. Dweck suggests that the forming process may even influence the supply of willpower and that willpower itself may be formed, limited, enhanced, or made abundant depending on how your thoughts and beliefs are formed and focused. Moreover, she says, individuals with a “growth mindset,” brains, and talent are just the starting point; a strong belief that abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work must be factored into the equation. Whereas in a “fixed mindset” people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits and spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them. Dr. Dweck’s research demonstrates how significant our thoughts and mindsets are in supporting or potentially interfering with one’s success in life. Dr. Dweck notes that it is not just a question about the nature of willpower; it’s also a question of what kind of people we want to project and be.
Dr. Dweck generously offers many of her articles based upon her years of researching the origins of mindsets, their roles and impact on achievement and interpersonal processes. Go to http://www.brainology.us/ to see why Jeff Raikes, CEO of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, commented, “Seeing Carol Dweck – Growth Mindset as a key to closing the achievement gap.”
Dacher Keltner, Ph.D., professor of psychology at University of California at Berkeley and founder of the Greater Good Science Center, has devoted his career to studying the nature of human goodness, conducting groundbreaking research on compassion, awe, laughter, and love. He is an expert on social intelligence, positive psychology, the psychology of power, and the emotional bases of morality.
We’re learning so much about our brains and what’s driving the mind-body connection, largely because there are so many advances in neurophysiology, a branch of physiology and neuroscience. Scientists, like Dr. Dacher Keltner, have been looking at the structures of the brain, neurotransmitters, and the peripheral nervous systems to study the mind-body connection much more deeply than what was formerly understood as the pure provenance of the mind.
The emerging science provokes us to examine a mix of personal, social, and cultural ingredients and investigate an opportunity to grow and sustain health within a new paradigm. Our definition of sustainability may widen as we see a parallel between our understanding of ecology and the bond between the health of the mind and that of the body. Could our thoughtful choices become key ingredients in a recipe for nourishment?