A tide of media articles over the past few years has made it clear that medicine is putting almost all its future hopes on genetics. But a small study from UCLA offers an intriguing alternative, one that could be just the tip of the iceberg. Researchers found that children and teenagers who described themselves as positive thinkers had higher thresholds of tolerance for pain. On the other hand, young subjects who had learned less positive coping skills (such as worrying about problems or turning to someone else for help) were less able to tolerate the application of pressure or heat to the skin, which was how pain was measured in the laboratory.
The significance of these findings is that psychological attitudes changed basic physical sensations. It had already been shown that we don't all respond to pain alike. When asked to rate pain on a scale of 1 to 10, people who are subjected to the same stimulus come up with far different reactions. What feels like a 1 on the pain scale to one person can feel like a 6, 7, or higher to another. Instead of being simply a physical variation, the new research suggests that personal interpretation is involved. Yet to the person feeling the pain, this isn't a subjective event. The degree of discomfort is completely real.
Why is this the tip of an iceberg? I was reminded of Tummo, an ancient form of Tibetan meditation that originated in India as a yogic practice. Buddhist monks who practice Tummo are able to withstand extreme cold without discomfort or bodily harm. Clad only in a thin layer of silk, they can sit all night in ice caves in the Himalayas or on the surface of a frozen lake. Long considered a legendary skill, Tummo has been verified by Western researchers, who discovered in the 80s that the monks are raising their body temperature by up to 8 degrees Centigrade, or 14 degrees Fahrenheit. In essence, they are controlling a feedback loop in the body that is normally automatic. A region of the brain known as the hypothalamus is responsible for regulating body temperature, but in this case the monks are inserting their own intention, and what was once automatic becomes voluntary.
Apparently the kids who were studied at UCLA are doing the same thing. It still remains a mystery how the Tibetans can withstand a temperature rise of 14 degrees, given that brain cells begin to die if a patient suffers from fever over 104 degrees. Perhaps the control achieved in Tummo can also differentiate which part of the body becomes warm or warmer. But in both cases, it's the dual nature of the nervous system that proves so fascinating. Most of us allow our bodies to run automatically, and we assume that we cannot interfere very easily, if at all, into processes that go wrong.
Yet we have twenty years of mind-body research to suggest otherwise. Beginning twenty years ago, it was found that psychotherapy helps women cope with breast cancer, not just in terms of feeling better but actually increasing survival rates. When terminal cancer patients were divided into two groups, those that had no psychotherapy and those who met for group sessions once a week to discuss their feelings, the longest term survivors were all the in therapy group. Before that, the noted editor Norman Cousins had written about the reduction of tumors in cancer patients who used visualization techniques, often as simple as seeing their tumors being buried under a blanket of falling snow until they disappeared.
Medicine has largely turned its back on these findings and rushed headlong into drugs, surgery, and now genetics as the only "real" way to heal. This is in keeping with a long-held prejudice against the placebo effect and psychosomatic disease. Though long proven to be real, easing pain through a placebo is thought somehow to be fake or second-best to easing pain through drugs. Similarly, psychosomatic illness is considered to be "all in your head," when by definition it is also in the body. The fact is that we will not know what our bodies are truly capable of until we delve deeper into the mind-body connection. Until we do, the future of the body may seem to lie with genetic manipulation when simpler, less invasive, and far less expensive treatments could be at our fingertips.
(to be cont.)