Mind over matter

Following from a discussion in class the other day, I thought I’d write a quick post about something that has always fascinated me. The mind is a powerful thing; it has the power to invoke physical reactions of such strength that they can blow you away. I have experienced this, although possibly not in a way I would have wished.

I’m relatively open about the fact that I used to lack self-confidence. For those of you who know me as the loud and very enthusiastic person who takes on far too much this might surprise you. When I was a teenager there was a time in my life when the very thought of staying over at someone else’s house used to fill me with dread. The power of that emotion would cripple me; an internal dialogue would spin and trip through my brain whilst I paced, a knot in my stomach sitting heavy making me nauseous. This would happen time and time again, and no logical self pep talk could alter it, my mind, my brain could elicit such a powerful without any conscious stimulus. It is overwhelming.

Still I haven’t let this stop me, and I worked hard to overcome it. I am immensely stubborn and quite simply it pissed me off that I felt like that, I worked on the principle mind over matter! If your neurons, your vital circuits hidden to the human eye deep within your brain can create such a strong reaction; could we not harness it for good?

Take the example of functional pain; it degrades the life of many people and can not be explained by any disease or injury. Widespread functional disorders are those such as irritable bowel syndrome and nonspecific low back pain; common in the general population with estimates of chronic sufferers ranging from 5-20%. Doctors struggle to keep the pain of these individuals under control, and as a result a small part of our population lives in constant discomfort.

Hypnosis has been suggested as a possible therapy. A couple of years ago I did some filming with Stuart Derbyshire at the University of Birmingham. He has been modeling the neurological mechanisms of functional pain using, among other things hypnosis. His research has indicated that activity in a regions of the brain, including one specific area called the anterior cingulate cortex, is correlated with how much pain a person is actually experiencing whether there is actually a physical stimulus or not.

By putting someone under hypnosis and a person can ‘suggest’ the pain is not there, reducing the fiery red activation of the ACC seen in a fMRI image, and causing the patient some comfort. This can also work the other way; someone can be persuaded that they are suffering from an insult with a ‘painful’ object and the ACC flares up so they feel ‘real’ pain.

Like any physiological study, these results are not quite as clear cut as I’ve simplified them to be, but when we managed to push a pin through the hand of our presenter, who was hypnotized, and he didn’t feel a thing something was definitely happening!

It is not entirely clear what hypnosis is. There are many circulating theories, and even more people can not be budged from their undying skepticism. But there is research, such as Stuart Derbyshire’s, to indicate an actual neurological change in the way we ‘think’ under hypnosis, and that this can have an incredible physical effect. I think that it gives us a small insight into how powerful the mind can be, and new meaning to the phrase ‘mind over matter’.

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One thought on “Mind over matter

  1. The “father of hypnotism,” Franz Anton Mesmer—from whose name we get the word “mesmerize”—was himself a practitioner of the occult. Hypnotism, has been linked to spiritual darkness. The newfound respectability of these practices has not changed their underlying nature.

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