Many people are turning their backs on the real value of mind-body medicine, at just the wrong time. The evidence for this comes from many quarters; here's one of the most interesting. As reported recently in the New York Times, an old, widely discredited mental diagnosis may be returning.
Is Hysteria Real?
The disorder in question, hysteria, was quite familiar to Freud. He used the term to describe serious physical symptoms (paralysis and seizures being the most common) that suddenly appear without physical cause. Most of the hysterical patients that Freud saw were women, and he theorized that their symptoms were symbols for unconscious wishes and fears, usually sexual in nature. In part because this hypothesis was never proved, and in part because the diagnosis seemed sexist, hysteria disappeared from the medical lexicon. Yet the disorder itself didn't.
What the Times reported on was a paper by brain researchers in Cardiff, Wales, who believe they have located the area of the brain that is causing such drastic symptoms without any physical illness. Paralysis and seizures lead directly to the motor cortex that is responsible for muscle motion. The researchers discovered that this area of the brain wasn't responding correctly to signals from the part of the cortex responsible for higher thinking. But the motor centers weren't damaged, as they would be in someone suffering from paralysis caused by disease.
Instead, the higher brain was refusing to send the proper signals, in effect censoring what the person wanted to do. If this finding is validated, the mystery of hysteria will have been solved. As we've seen in recent years, dysfunction in the brain is responsible for depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and perhaps a host of behaviors including overeating and addiction.
But by so precisely mapping brain dysfunction, are we really finding a cause? Depressed and anxious patients are generally helped by giving them drugs that rebalance certain areas of their brains, yet this is never a cure. As soon as thee drug is removed, the symptoms return. Presently, doctors feel that this is all they can do. If a sick brain can't be permanently repaired, there's nothing else to try.
And yet the mind-body connection says otherwise. Depressed patients can also be helped with couch therapy, that is, through talking about the issues at hand and resolving them. If you're depressed because you're too shy to go to job interviews, the realistic solution isn't to dope your brain but to boost your confidence. Recent studies in compulsive-obsessive disorder have shown that the same regions of the brain are improved through talk therapy as through psychotropic drugs like Prozac. So confronting your problems is "real" medicine. This point is overlooked in our rush to drug the brain and make symptoms subside.
There's no guarantee that talk therapy will be permanent, yet that's not the issue. The fact is that talking isn't a brain function but a mental one. A drug may fix a specific chemical imbalance, but that's the same as fixing a broken radio. You wouldn't claim that fixing a radio is the same as fixing the programs playing through it. The brain receives messages from the mind and turns them into physical functions. Fixing the receiver doesn't cure a disturbed mind.
It's understandable that science dismisses the mind as invisible and therefore illusory, while the brain, being an object, can be endlessly tinkered with. Some philosophical skeptics assert that mid is a complete fiction to begin with, a ghost we've learned to live with but never proven the existence of. The refutation of that position stares us squarely in the face, though, because every time we respond to words, a mental event changes the brain, not vice versa.
If I tell you that you've lost your job or your entire savings, you will get depressed. Your brain will exhibit the same chemical imbalance as someone with chronic depression. Yet the cause isn't a mystery. You are responding to a mental event known as bad news. Bad news, sudden stress, failed expectations, guilt, shame, and a host of other mental events can throw the brain into severe imbalance. Without such stimuli, the brain simply coasts along normally with no ability to change a person's mood, any more than a radio can change a song from happy to sad.
This may sound like an abstract point, but the future direction of medicine depends upon it. In recent decades mind-body therapies have made tremendous strides, and yet the prejudice against them is enormous. For example, do you believe that high cholesterol is the chief cause of premature heart attacks? Millions of people do, and yet the classic long-term study on premature heart attacks that began at Harvard after WW II didn't find that the chief risk factor was high cholesterol. The chief risk was unexamined psychological issues. Men who confronted their personal problems in their twenties were less likely to die of a premature heart attack than those who didn't. This correlation was stronger than the correlation with cholesterol, only treating high cholesterol, being materialistic, fit the bias of medicine better.
The same holds true in a variety of diseases, Cancer is correlated to emotional repression. Early retirement or the sudden loss of a spouse shortens life expectancy. High stress, or even working on the night shift, causes a host of disorders to become more likely. The fact that doctors don't take these factors seriously enough isn't going to make them go away. The need to build the mind-body bridge is crucial, and until we face that fact, pushing drugs and performing surgery will be a drastic, often short-sighted mode of treatment for millions of people.
Follow Deepak Chopra on Twitter: www.twitter.com/DeepakChopra