Is the "Mind Body Connection” Science or Pseudoscience?


Do you believe in a “mind body connection”? I hear this phrase thrown around a lot. To some people the whole idea sounds like voodoo, while others think it is a concept from the frontiers of neuroscience. Others think it is an earth shattering profundity of spiritual dimension that will revolutionize medicine, science and life as we know it.

I find it interesting that there is so much controversy and confusion surrounding this phrase, because on one level it should be trivially obvious that the mind can affect the body. If I think about walking to the store, I can make my body walk to the store. If I feel the emotion of anger, my face might get red. If I get scared of a bear, I might not digest my food very well. These facts are almost boringly obvious. So what is the source of the confusion and controversy here?

Deepities defined

I think Dan Dennett's very cool concept of a “deepity” can help us understand.

Dennett defines a deepity as a somewhat ambiguous statement that precariously balances between two possible meanings. One potential meaning is true but trivially obvious, while the other would be earth shatteringly profound if true, but is in fact false. One example of a deepity that Dennett offers is the phrase: “love is just a word.”

On one level the statement is perfectly true in a very uninteresting way - “love” is in fact a four letter word. The alternate “deeper” interpretation of the phrase suggests the amazing idea that maybe love doesn’t really exist! But this is in fact false: love is a real emotion that people really feel.

Once you get a grip on this idea, you can see deepities everywhere, especially in alternative health care. For example, I think that many times when the phrase “mind body connection” is used, it can have a deepity-like ambiguity that causes people to confuse neuroscience with new age spirituality or vice versa.

On the “true” side of the deepity equation, neuroscience has now proven that brain activity interacts with the body through the nervous system, issuing motor commands, and controlling numerous other aspects of physiology. Science has also shown that emotional and mental states have large effects on the autonomic nervous system, the endocrine system, and the immune system, in ways that can create placebo effects or have significant effects on various measures of health. Long term emotional stress is a killer. Pain is in the brain. So of course thoughts and feelings can affect the body.

Confusing mind/body with mind over matter

Many people will confuse these scientific findings with proof that the mind has some magical or all powerful control over the body, or even the outside world. In effect, they have mistaken the idea of a “mind/body connection” with the idea of mind over matter. Many alternative health gurus like Deepak Chopra will attempt to use neuroscience to validate some very new agey or spiritual ideas about the nature of reality, such as the ideas that:

  • reality is only what you believe it to be
  • your “intentions” can heal others
  • you can have unlimited health, wealth, love and success if you only choose it
  • visions in your mind will manifest themselves in the universe in magical, mysterious or powerful ways.

One popular version of this mindset is called the Law of Attraction (discussed in the hugely popular book The Secret and featured on Oprah, Larry King, etc.) This “law” claims that you create your reality through your thoughts, so that a positive mental state can basically shape the whole universe to work in your favor. An excellent example of this type of thinking was displayed recently by Deepak Chopra, who apologized that some of his meditations on Shiva (the Hindu god of destruction) caused an earthquake in Baja California. If the mind and body were indeed connected in these ways, this would be (literally) earth shattering and revolutionary news. However, there is currently no evidence to believe that any of these ideas are true. So this is the “profound but false” side of the deepity equation.

And this is why we can get confused when talking about the mind’s role in health. I think the deepityness of the phrase “mind/body connection” is probably part of the reason why therapeutic methods aimed more at the brain than the body are sometimes inappropriately considered a little woo woo. For example, neurobiologist David Felten faced considerable skepticism from the mainstream medical community in his work establishing that thoughts can affect the immune system. The brain’s role in pain is also now well established in science, but the idea continues to struggle in practice against a strong current of thinking that stubbornly focuses the search for pain solely on the body.

Conversely, the ambiguity of the mind/body connection idea has helped many new age gurus to cloak their supernatural claims in the garb of science. For example, a quick internet search reveals a website called MindBody News, which intersperses small bits of news about recent neuroscience findings with large servings of the Law of Attraction. There are endless other examples of this type of thing.

With all this out there to confuse us, it's good to know what side of the deputy someone is on. Feel free to propose some additional deepities in the comments section. I think the words "energy" and "intention" probably qualify.