mind body connection, heart, kidneys, soul, emotions

The Mind-Body Connection: Greater than We Think?

The Mind-Body Connection: Greater than We Think?

© 2011 Dr. Dale Peterson & drdalepeterson.com

The longer I live and the more I learn about the incredible design of the human body, soul, and spirit the more I appreciate the insight of King David more than 3 millennia ago when he wrote, “I will praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; Marvelous are Your works, And that my soul knows very well.” I know I have made reference to his observation several times in the past, but I repeat it because it is constantly taking on new meaning as I make new observations and discoveries about human existence.

Western medicine has traditionally viewed the physical body as an incredibly complex machine that contains organs that play specific roles in maintaining life. The heart, for example, is a well-designed pump for keeping blood circulating around the body. The kidneys serve as filters of the blood and maintain the proper balance of fluids and salts in the body. The liver is a factory that stores energy, maintains protein levels, and detoxifies substances so that they can be excreted before they harm the body. The brain is the computer that coordinates body activities and enables conscious thought.

While it is true that organs do perform specific mechanical functions, we do them a disservice and we do not fully appreciate David’s observation if we see them only in that light. The expanded roles our internal organs play in our lives are evident in the expressions we use in everyday conversation. “I’m heartbroken,” someone who has suffered a loss will say. It is not uncommon to hear about a person having a “gut feeling” when facing a decision.

The “mind-body connection”, the concept that our thoughts, emotions, and actions affect our physical health, has gained gradual acceptance in American medicine over the past several decades. Observations that physical challenges often follow emotionally stressful events and that thinking positive thoughts can speed recovery from physical illness have been bolstered by recent scientific discoveries.

It is widely accepted that abnormally low levels of certain brain chemicals can trigger depression and adversely affect one’s outlook. Studies have shown that the converse is also true – persistence of negative and self-deprecating thoughts can trigger chemical changes in the brain. It appears that depression can result from either emotional or physical factors. Once present, it will tend to be maintained unless the vicious cycle is interrupted by restoring brain chemicals to normal levels or by modifying one’s thought pattern. This explains why depression can be treated either by counseling or by supporting brain chemistry and why a combination of both is the most effective means of restoring mental health.

Emotional stress is known to adversely affect the activity of the body’s immune system. Many people have had the experience of developing cold sores during or following emotionally difficult times. Studies have shown that emotional outlook affects the body’s production of white blood cells, key elements of the immune system. One study looked at the outcome of individuals infected by HIV who exhibited symptoms of depression or attempted to avoid dealing with their emotions. It was found that their CD4 cell counts (CD4 cells are those most affected by the HIV virus) fell twice as rapidly as those who scored well on depression tests and who actively dealt with emotional issues.

When people speak of the “mind-body connection” they are generally referring to the effect of emotions on the physical body. I am convinced, however, that a body-mind connection exists, that just as emotional challenges can cause physical effects in the body, physical challenges can trigger emotional changes.

For the past seven years I have been experiencing attacks of paroxysmal atrial fibrillation, which is a sudden loss of the normal rhythm of the heart. The condition has a profound effect on my emotional state. When my heart is in a regular rhythm I feel optimistic, industrious, and capable of taking on multiple challenges. When my heart is out of rhythm I am pessimistic, lethargic, despondent, and near the point of despair. When the episodes first appeared I assumed that my emotional state was a consequence of the loss of energy associated with the arrhythmia, but over time I have recognized that the emotions are directly related to what is physically happening in the heart.

I say this because the emotional changes are instantaneous. They do not come on gradually as they would if they were a reaction to the persistence of the irregular heart beat and the associated fatigue, but come and go as quickly as a switch can be turned on and off. I can usually tell that my heart has gone into or out of rhythm without checking my pulse. The sudden and dramatic change in my emotional outlook is a sure sign that my heart has lost its regular rhythm or has converted back to its normal state.

The relationship of body organs to the soul was known in ancient times, as it is recorded in the writings of David and others. This knowledge has been obscured by English translations of the original Hebraic text of the Bible. When the relationship of a given organ to an aspect of the soul did not fit the translator’s understanding of the body, words were changed to reflect what the interpreter believed to be a more appropriate reading of the passage. The Psalms provide some excellent examples.

Consider the following verses:

“My heart instructs me in the night seasons.” – Psalm 16:7

“Try my mind and heart.” –Psalm 26:2

“Thus my heart was grieved, and I was vexed in my mind.” – Psalm 73:21

“My innermost being (heart, soul) will rejoice when your lips speak right things.” – Proverbs 23:16

In the original Hebrew text the word that is translated heart, mind, soul, or innermost being is actually kidneys. Translators simply could not bring themselves to render a literal translation. To their Western minds the phrases “My kidneys instruct me in the night seasons”, “Try my kidneys and heart”, “I was vexed in my kidneys”, and “My kidneys will rejoice” made no sense and sounded ridiculous.

From an Eastern medical perspective (the authors of the Bible were from the Middle East), however, the use of the word kidneys makes perfect sense. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the kidney is the seat of procreation. It is the vitality center of the body. It is the clarity of our thinking, our ability to regenerate our body. It is a gift from our parents, the Western equivalent of DNA.

In Eastern thought the kidneys are where the basic energy of life, the essence of our being has its abode. An ancient Chinese document, the Nei Ching, says that the kidneys are like the officials who do energetic work, and they excel through their ability and cleverness.

With this understanding the passages are valid in a medical as well as in a spiritual sense. It can truly be said that our kidneys instruct us in the night seasons. Our vital functions continue to operate even while we are asleep and not conscious of their activity. Our spirit never sleeps, and its communion with God is never broken.

Many people can relate stories of awakening from a sound sleep with a need to pray for someone far away, later to discover that that individual was in a crisis at that very moment. Others have had the experience of going to bed in a state of confusion and waking up with a new outlook on the situation. The Psalms tell us that these incidents are not "paranormal" but a natural element of our design.

From an Oriental perspective the heart is the supreme controller of a human being, overseeing the workings of the body, mind, and spirit. According to the Nei Ching, "The heart is like the minister of the monarch who excels through insight and understanding. The heart fills the role of ‘sovereign ruler' from whom emanate directing influence and clear insight."

The emotions emanating from the heart according to Traditional Chinese Medicine are strikingly similar to those I experience when struck with an arrhythmia. They include a lack of enthusiasm and vitality, mental restlessness, depression, insomnia, and despair.

Biblically, the heart is the seat of emotions and center of the personality. It speaks of the “thoughts of the heart”, the “imagination of the heart”, of “saying in one’s heart”, the “wisdom of the heart”, and the “understanding of the heart.” This runs counter to the contemporary view that thoughts originate in the brain, that personality is a product of brain activity, and that the brain is the emotional center of the body.

The medical view of the heart as a simple mechanical pump has been challenged by the experience of heart transplant patients. An Israeli study of the emotional effects of heart transplants was published in 2004. The conclusion is reproduced in its entirety:

“This study confirms the intuitive idea that heart transplant involves a stressful course of events that produces an amplified sense of the precariousness of existence. Simultaneously, it gives rise to rejoicing at having been granted a new lease on life and a clear sense of new priorities, especially with regard to relationships. Less expectedly, this study shows that, despite sophisticated knowledge of anatomy and physiology, almost half the heart recipients had an overt or covert notion of potentially acquiring some of the donor's personality characteristics along with the heart. The concomitance of the magical and the logical is not uncommon in many areas of human existence, and is probably enhanced by the symbolic nature of the heart, and maybe, also, by the persistent stress that requires an ongoing, emotionally intense, adaptation process.”

The investigators expected to find that undergoing a heart transplantation procedure was a life-changing event. They expected to find that recipients had gained a new appreciation for life, that they had changed their priorities, and that the value they put on interpersonal relationships had risen. They did not expect to find that the heart recipients had acquired some of the donor’s personality characteristics.

Even though half of the recipients reported a personality change that they contributed directly to the presence of the donor’s heart within their chests, the researchers could not accept the possibility that personality resides in the heart, not in the brain. They rationalized their findings by concluding that the transplant recipients found comfort in the symbolic nature of the heart in coping with the intensely stressful situation in which they found themselves.

This is not the only study to report personality changes in heart transplant recipients. A 1992 Austrian study reported that a small number of recipients reported a definite personality change that they attributed directly to the presence of the different heart. While nearly 80 % denied any personality change they exhibited “massive defense and denial reactions” such as quickly changing the subject or laughing off the question as ridiculous.

More striking than the statistical analyses are individual case reports of heart transplant recipients taking on aspects of the donor’s personality. Excerpts from “Changes in Heart Transplant Recipients that Parallel the Personalities of their Donors" by Drs. Paul Pearsall and Gary Schwartz are available at www.paulpearsall.com. Reading them it is difficult to understand how physicians can continue to attribute the personality changes to the effects of anesthesia, immunosuppressant drugs, psychosocial stress, or pre-existing psychological illnesses in the recipients.

Since I became aware of the emotional aspects of my own episodes of atrial fibrillation I have asked others who have experienced the arrhythmia if they had similar experiences. Many of them admit that feelings of helplessness and despondency accompany the attacks, but state that they had not recognized their significance or considered the relationship between the heart rhythm and emotion previously.

What then is the “take-home” lesson from this letter? I believe it is that you and I are far more complex creatures than generally recognized. While modern medicine views the body as separate and distinct from the soul and the spirit it is not possible to do so in light of either the ancient writings about the nature of our physical organs or in the experience of modern heart transplant recipients.

That being the case, it is important to move beyond simplistic solutions to health challenges. When facing an emotional challenge such as depression it may be helpful to support the action of chemicals within the brain, but it is also important to look for and address challenges in other parts of the body. When confronted with a challenge involving an organ or system of the body it is important to evaluate and, if necessary, correct thought patterns that may be contributing to that physical illness.

If you experience thoughts or emotions that are out of character for you or for which there is not an obvious explanation, ask whether a disease process could be affecting an area of your body. Emotional maps from Traditional Chinese Medicine may be helpful in this regard. Some of these are:

Heart: A lack of enthusiasm and vitality, mental restlessness, depression, insomnia, and despair.

Kidney: Fearfulness, weak willpower, insecurity, aloofness, and a desire to be isolated from others.

Liver: Anger, resentment, frustration, irritability, and bitterness with a tendency to "fly off the handle.”

Lung: Grief, sadness, and detachment.

Spleen: Worry, dwelling or focusing too much on a particular topic, and excessive mental work.

I hope that you experience excellent health and never encounter a significant illness. If you do, however, be aware that a disease is never confined to a single organ or body part, but affects the entire person. Don’t assume that emotions are “all in your head” or that physical challenges are limited to internal organs. Recognize that you are “fearfully and wonderfully made” and address as many aspects of your illness as possible. The result should be a return to optimum health.

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