Neurologists may talk a big game, but the reality is that our understanding of the human brain is still in its infancy.
Even with our limited knowledge, however, it is becoming increasingly clear that the mind—all of the thoughts, emotions, ideas, and cognitive abstractions that exist within the brain—plays a much bigger and more direct role in the human body than previously thought. A lot of thought goes into keeping one’s body up and running. As it happens,, it takes a lot of thought to muck things up as well.
The following are some of the latest and greatest insights we’ve gleaned into the functions (and dysfunctions) of the human mind to date.
10. Thinking with Your Stomach
What goes on in the brain generally boils down to the exchange of neurons, achieved by the movement of chemicals known as neurotransmitters. If you’ve ever been on antidepressants, for example (one in ten of Americans are), or tried to rationalize your chocolate-eating habit, you might recognize names like “serotonin” or “dopamine”. These are just a two of the neurotransmitters scientists have identified, and they are at least partially involved in the human experience of happiness.
But, as recent research has shown, the brain in your head isn’t the only organ using neurotransmitters—or regulating your moods as a result. Although incapable of conscious thought as we know it, the human stomach utilizes its own neural network not wholly unlike the brain. When scientists studying it want to sound impressive, they call it the “Enteric Nervous System” (or ENS), but the rest of the time they call it the Little Brain.
Just like Ratatouille’s “Little Chef,” this puppeteer of the human mind is obsessed with gastronomic goings-on, helping to coordinate digestive processes, but also affecting mood by communicating with the Big Brain. While historically mood disorders were thought to disrupt appetite and digestion, emerging evidence suggests the relationship may be reversed, and that this gut-brain is actually triggering the mood changes (for reasons we can’t quite pin down), as well as affecting memory, cognition, and other mental processes in a desperate attempt to get more attention.
If redefining “gut feeling” weren’t enough, it is now believed that the ENS may have a central role in the management—and even the cause—of certain chronic diseases. Since human digestion is already known to involve various symbiotic bacteria and parasites, it isn’t a stretch for some of these bacteria to hitch a ride on a misfiring hormone and break out of the digestive tract, wreaking havoc on the body elsewhere.
Traditionally, therapists and counselors have had to rely on their patients for any sign that treatment was working, whether that feedback came in the form of body language, verbal feedback, or one of those fantastic surveys asking subjects to rate their suicidal impulses on a scale from 1 to 10 (with helpful drawings to lend context to the scale), it was all pretty subjective.
That is, until someone decided that simply trusting individuals with a mental complaint to be honest and direct about their condition might be an unreliable way to evaluate treatment.
Enter NeuroCounseling. We know that neuroplasticity—the brain’s ability to learn, and record new information into memory—leaves physical traces in the brain. The idea is that by using modern brain-mapping technology like MRIs and electrodes, counselors can get a good look at the physical layout of a patient’s brain, then track changes over the course of therapy. Watching thishappen in real time, or via snapshots taken over time, lets NeuroCounselors see whether a given intervention is, literally, making any impact.
This way, rather than asking a chronically depressed patient, “Do you feel better now?” or a recovering addict, “Are you planning on using as soon as you leave here?” and trusting them to be both self-aware and honest in their answers, NeuroCounselors can actually look and see for themselves whether bad habits are being replaced by positive ones, whether coping mechanisms are taking root, and whether improvement in the counseling office stands a chance of surviving once the session is finished.
It is particularly helpful in determining the best mode (or modes) of counseling right from the start, rather than the trial and error approach that is normally required. Will a given patient respond better to talk therapy, art therapy, or animal therapy? NeuroCounseling allows a therapist to watch the brain light up when the right approach is introduced, then focus just on doing what actually works from then on.
8. Humor Therapy
There may be some wisdom to the old adage, “laughter is the best medicine.” But as Pagliacci can attest, not all laughter is genuine, nor healing. The pity laughs you elicit with your nails-on-a-chalkboard puns are not curing cancer any time soon.
Laughter straddles an area of human behavior that can be both a social response—forced laughter—or an instinctive reaction. This is because laughter in nature is a bonding mechanism; it is hardwired into mammalian brains.
Laughter has been described as “tickling the brain” for good reason. Tickling appears to be an extension of grooming behavior, a common ritual used by many animals to establish status, group membership, and manage cohabitation. Laughter, as an outgrowth of this mechanism, serves a similar purpose, even without necessitating physical contact.
In other words, connecting with people via their sense of humor is a good sign that you are compatible in other ways—failing to connect on comedy, on the other hand, may signal a primal incompatibility. That is why you can “get” a joke, but not find it funny, or otherwise be floored by something unexpectedly hilarious.
While that can be intimidating to aspiring comics, it is good news for therapists. Being able to share in laughter is a powerful bonding experience that creates trust, camaraderie, and can take routine talk therapy up several notches in effectiveness.
And even though comedy among humans is subjective, laughter is objectively measurable. Properly activated, laughter is a powerful neurochemical trigger. That means on a chemical level, it is replacing stress hormones with happiness ones, combating fatigue, anxiety, depression, and other negative emotions with more positive ones.
7. Sleep Paralysis/Lucid Dreaming
Strap in, because things are about to reach Inception-grade levels of meta in here.
Sleep is a pretty complicated time for the human body. Like a duck in water, the calm surface disguises a frenzy of activity going on out of sight. That is why it is so important to get a good night’s sleep—disrupt your sleep cycles, and literally everything in your body and mind starts to deteriorate.
Physically, your body is going to town repairing blood vessels, building muscles, managing digestion, and generally doing a massive shuffling of hormones and biomass. This chemical jumble, of course, relies heavily on those biological frequent flyers—neurotransmitters—to keep everything in line: insulin levels, appetite, organ function, mood, etc.
At the same time, your brain is busy shepherding neurons around to create long-term memories, refining existing mental habits, and otherwise figuring out what the hell to do with all the stimulation you subjected it to during waking hours.
Taken together, it is kind of remarkable it only takes about eight hours a night to get everything done.
Whether or not you accept this reality consciously, your brain has you covered: when you enter deep sleep, your brain fires off a neurotransmitter that shuts down most of your muscles, insulating them from the bits of your nervous system that would normally allow you to control your own movement.
Then, some small part of your brain, like the foreman at a construction site, gets to oversee all the heavy neurochemical lifting, leading to the psychedelic experience we call “dreaming.” If you’ve ever had a dream where you tried to run but couldn’t move your legs, then you have that paralytic neurochemical to thank for not sleep-sprinting your way into a wall at full speed.
Sometimes, however, your conscious mind doesn’t appreciate being left out of the all-night party, and tries to peek between the boards around the construction site that is your subconscious. When you become conscious of your dreaming mind without immediately waking up and ending the sleep cycle, you are experiencing “lucid dreaming,” and can experience—or even, with practice, control—the full range of physics-defying imaginationland that dreams are made of.
As you (and a cohort of neurologists and psychiatrists) can imagine, having this kind of semi-direct channel between the conscious and subconscious mind opens up some powerful therapeutic potential. It is like learning to be your own therapist, and coaching your own mind through trauma, depression, addiction, or any other mental ailment you want addressed, from the comfort of your own bed.
At least, that’s how it is supposed to work. Alternately, your conscious mind can come rearing back into control without giving the rest of the neurochemicals blocking traffic in your nervous system time to clock out. Although you wake up, you realize you cannot control or move any part of your body, a living nightmare state known as sleep paralysis that normally—though not always—wears off after a few seconds. And there’s nothing you can do about it, because it is up to your subconscious neurotransmitters to give the signal for your body’s own paralytic agents to back off.
6. Morning Sickness and Adaptation
Key to the theory of evolution is adaptation: that is, creatures find ways to cope with their surroundings, protect themselves, and serve their basic survival needs. While much attention gets heaped on the physical evidence of this process, there is a parallel form of evolution known as psychological adaptation.
Examples of this are hard to pin down (instinct looks a lot like adaptation—both serve our need to survive), but one that researchers feel reasonably confident about is that classic complaint of the pregnant mother, morning sickness.
Because modern humans have come up with endlessly inventive ways to rebrand and reconstitute nasty crap we shouldn’t eat into nutritionally deficient snacks we crave like cocaine, our brains have found a quick fix to save us from ourselves in order to reproduce.
In the early stages of pregnancy, a developing fetus is pretty vulnerable, and extremely needy. As a result, the mother can develop a hypersensitivity to certain smells and tastes, which can quickly escalate into a powerful taste aversion triggered by the merest sight, suggestion, or thought of a problem food. If you’ve ever eaten something you loved right before some bout of stomach flu or binge drinking forced it all up again, you can appreciate how taste aversions change your dietary preferences.
For the newly pregnant, however, this reconditioning is a result of their subconscious maternal mind trying to keep their gestating offspring safe from potentially dangerous food and drink the only way it knows how. Pregnancy acts like a sort of short-lived super serum on the mother’s senses—particularly her sense of smell, ratcheting up her sensitivity (and potential aversion) to risky foods, regardless of what she is actually eating.
That is why even the most well-intentioned mothers following strict diets and memorizing “What to Expect” media still often suffer from bouts of morning sickness.
5. Body Shame
Shame, from a psychological point of view, is sort of like the creepy cousin of empathy: you download not just the emotions of others, but the negative ones specifically directed at yourself. Because empathy is a core component of the human survival instinct (it lets us cooperate, build society, and eat meat that isn’t made out of other people), that can make shame a difficult thing to simply ignore.
In fact, even if you think you don’t care what people say about you, your subconscious is taking down every word, and using it against you without you even knowing it.
Beyond simply upsetting subjects emotionally, it has been found that body-shaming actually results in physical illness, as well as magnifying traits like obesity that are the very targets of verbal or social attacks. Just as happy thoughts aid digestion, unhappy feelings jack up the works and compound problems like weight, appetite, and sleep–a pretty nasty cycle once it gets started.
And while shame is a powerfully destructive subconscious burden on both men and women, the ladies are subjected to body-shaming in particular, because both genders have learned to see women as objects. So while everyone is subject to the ill-effects of social shaming and even body-shaming, our subconscious minds are conspiring to disproportionately target this mind-weapon at women.
4. Hypnosis and Meditation
Modern medicine has finally caught up with 5,000 years of human culture and realized that meditation is more than just sleeping contortionists.
A lot more.
Basic meditation generally starts by focusing on one’s breathing. This isn’t just a gimmick: without conscious instruction, your brain is constantly communicating to your body to continue breathing, varying the rate depending on the demands of your other bodily processes (exercising, sleeping, watching a scary movie). But you can easily adjust your breathing just by thinking about it.
That makes breathing something of a gateway between the conscious and unconscious minds—and a perfect springboard for meditation.
At its fullest application, meditation is actually a bit like a shortcut to lucid dreaming; it blurs the line between the conscious and unconscious minds, allowing practitioners to come a little closer to influencing the neurotransmitters firing off in their brains and bodies—effectively helping them to regulate their emotions through sheer concentration and self-suggestion.
Extensions of this conscious neurochemical influence have shown promise in many other realms of medicine usually reserved for the hospital: managing chronic pain (including extreme conditions like fibromyalgia and multiple sclerosis), epilepsy, migraines—basically any complaint that involves misbehaving muscles.
Hypnosis gets a pretty misleading representation, thanks to carnival sideshows, comic book supervillains, and movies that take the concept and turn it into some strange form of mind-control magic. In reality, hypnosis is something more akin to guided meditation, mixed with a little bit of suggestion.
You can’t force people to love a musician they hate, or enjoy a movie the same way you do, but you can sometimes get them to slowly soften their opinions, develop a new association, or at least empathize with a different point of view. That is the essence of hypnosis: influence, not control.
Like meditation, hypnosis has a long history as a therapeutic technique, and gets down to business by helping people to relax, focus, and set those neurotransmitters moving in a more deliberate pattern. With practice, hypnotherapists and their subjects can manipulate the brain’s neuroplasticity to try to teach it new habits, behaviors, and build neural pathways.
It isn’t magic or mind-control, but it can nudge the mind in a different direction—if the person being hypnotized is willing.
Whereas meditation calms mind and body by focusing on one of the biological processes we can easily control through concentration—breathing—biofeedback tracks other normally unconscious systems, things like blood pressure, brain waves, muscular contractions, perspiration, and body temperature. Live readouts are then presented to the person whose body is generating them, and in theory, that awareness will slowly turn into conscious control.
Ironically, knowing that a person’s expectations can influence physiological reactions is seen as possibly invalidating the potential benefits of the mind-body connection. Unlike so many other mind-body interventions, biofeedback can actually be studied like medicine, controlling for the placebo effect.
Weeding out the placebo effect requires a control group, one who thinks they are receiving the real deal, but aren’t. By providing sham feedback to test subjects (a “placebo” of false biometric readings), researchers can determine whether the biofeedback exercises actually work.
And it turns out, they totally do.
By focusing intently on the various sources of biofeedback they are watching, research subjects were consistently able to learn to influence these processes, just like they could control their breathing—though not nearly as easily or dramatically. What is more, this self-regulation actually led to permanent changes in their brains, meaning that even extreme chronic pain could be mitigated by means of biofeedback therapy.
2. Immune System
Combine all the best features of meditation, biofeedback, and lucid dreaming, and what do you get?
Wim Hof, also known as the “Ice Man” has been touring the world for years, showing off how, through deep relaxation and mental concentration, it is possible for the conscious mind to control virtually any part of the human body. While plenty of people have relaxed through yoga or meditation, Hof has demonstrated that he can manipulate his own immune system.
In multiple experiments, Hof volunteered to have endotoxin directly injected into him. Normally, this would result in flu-like symptoms by triggering the body’s normal immune response system—as long as a person is healthy, they should react to the bacterial invasion.
But not the Hof.
Always the cautious skeptics, researchers have pointed out that it is hard to effectively test whether other humans are capable of the same degree of bioregulation as Hof, since most people aren’t game for climbing Mount Everest in gym shorts or Forrest Gump-ing across the Namibian Desert without food or water.
As far as Hof is concerned, though, anyone can follow in his apparently mutant footsteps and stop leaving their survival up to their unconscious brains.
Best of luck with that.
1. Thought Crime
By now, the idea of neuroplasticity should be pretty comfortable territory: the more you concentrate, the more you can help your brain build new pathways of thought and behavior.
Strip away all the trappings of lucid dreaming, hypnosis, meditation, or any other form of therapy, and you have a mental exercise known as visualization.
Close your eyes. Picture something, Congratulations, you just visualized.
Repeat this enough, and your brain gets used to it, and the stuff you are visualizing becomes a long-term memory. Long-term memory doesn’t just leave a physical trace on your brain, but becomes easier for your brain to access and revisit. That’s how you can memorize things like your phone number or address, and then recite them seemingly without thinking at the least suggestion.
It is why professional coaches stress the importance of positive thinking in athletes under their care: training the mind for victory is just as important as conditioning the body. The more you visualize performing flawlessly, making that catch or crossing that finish line, the more you prepare your brain (and by extension, your body) to follow through in reality.
The flipside of this therapeutic practice is that the more you think dark thoughts, the easier it is for you to act on them.
This is why every warning sign for suicide centers on identifying when someone is having suicidal thoughts. When a person starts imagining suicide not in abstract terms, but in an actual start-to-finish order of operations, it slowly desensitizes them to the act. Rather than fearing death, they become indifferent to it.
It is known as systematic desensitization, and it works the same way for positive behaviors as for negative ones: repetition breeds familiarity; familiarity mitigates emotional distraction; without emotional distraction, performance becomes easier, or even unconscious.
If that sounds like too much of a leap, consider that this is exactly how therapists treat phobias.
The media frequently catches flak for its coverage of violent crimes as well as teen suicides, out of concern that “copycats” would become inspired to replicate the high-profile acts. Visualization is even more powerful, because rather than just watching something on TV or reading about it online, the inspiration is already inside your head—and it gets more vivid and easier to recall every time you think about it, because that’s how long-term memory works.