LOS ALTOS, CA, September 28, 2012 – Ask Dr. Sarah Knox, a biomedical scientist and professor at the University of West Virginia School of Medicine, what’s the biggest challenge facing the scientific community and she’ll tell you it comes down to two fundamental principles currently dominating biomedical research, “both of which,” she says, “are based on outdated assumptions.”
The first is reductionism or the belief that complex diseases can be understood by dissecting their individual components. The second is materialism or the belief that matter is the primary cause of all physiological functioning and thought processes.
By combining the two, you end up with a scientific hypothesis that, amongst other things, looks at human consciousness and its impact on physical health as a purely biological, brain-based activity. And, for people like Dr. Knox, that’s not a good thing.
For all the advances being made in terms of understanding the link between mind and body, it’s a wonder that the spotlight still points predominantly in the direction of those working in the neurosciences, completely leaving out the individual as a factor in their own health.
Of course, living in the kind of see-it-to-believe-it culture that we do, it can be difficult to admit the existence of something we can’t perceive with our eyes and ears. This may explain why we tend to look at that pulpy mass inside our skull as Grand Central Station of the body’s nervous system. And yet, within other equally scientific disciplines – music and mathematics come to mind – we seem to be perfectly content to observe only effects without any evidence of a physical cause.
Could this same principle apply to the study of human thought? Certainly. Although, part of the problem lies in the terms we use to describe what’s happening upstairs.
Sometimes we try to clarify things by making a distinction between “mind” and “consciousness;” the former generally referring to the brain and the observable activity that goes on inside, the latter being the various emotions that would appear to trigger this activity. However, depending on whom you ask, these definitions can be fluid at best.
There is, however, another, more precise term that points to the decidedly individual and non-physical nature of thought.
They’re called qualia – subjective experiences like the taste of peanut butter, the color of the sky, the pain of a headache, the sensation of riding a roller coaster – that can’t be explained in purely physical terms.
Philosophically speaking, qualia present a major problem for the reductionist’s / materialist’s view of the mind-body connection. Sure, we may be able to observe what scientists would describe as an angry brain – maybe even measure the physiological impact this emotion can have on the body – but will we ever be able to detect the non-physical factors that likely caused this particular reaction in this particular individual?
Being able to determine what influences thought – and the attendant impact this thought can have on the body, for better or worse – is central to the research being done by a number of mind-body researchers these days. It was also central to the work of nineteenth century religious reformer and medical pioneer, Mary Baker Eddy, whose observations of hundreds of patients who came to her for healing led her to conclude that the quality of one’s life is determined by the quality of the thoughts they allow into their thinking.
“Mortal mind is the harp of many strings,” Eddy wrote in her seminal work on spirituality and health, “discoursing either discord or harmony according as the hand, which sweeps over it, is human or divine.”
Although this idea of there being a divine source of mental and physical health has been around for millennia, it’s finally gaining interest – if only modest acceptance – within mainstream medicine. Even so, the tide does appear to be shifting toward a more thought-based approach to health.
Which, folks like Dr. Knox would likely agree, is a very good thing indeed.
Eric Nelson is a Christian Science practitioner, whose articles on the link between consciousness and health appear regularly in a number of local, regional, and national online publications. He also serves as the media and legislative spokesperson for Christian Science in Northern California.
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