Monday, November 17, 2008

Mind over Matter

The brain is a powerful little machine. Powerful and complex enough that even with all modern advances in medical science in general and neuroscience in particular it still isn't understood very well (the poor thing). We know it has executive function over practically all biological systems, and yet we continue to be surprised by the extent to which what we consider the conscious part of the brain, such as emotions, appear to influence the mechanics of illness and disease.

Doctors have long known that placebos can have a real and measurable influence on well-being. That is an astonishing factoid, if you think about it; it shows that a simple change in thinking patterns may have real influence on many kinds of complex biological processes. If it hadn't been so well known, we'd probably be quite startled to discover it. We'd demand a double-blind placebo controlled study to prove it, which I'm quite sure has never been done (especially not the "placebo controlled" part). And yet, we know it's true.

The latest news is an article published in Cancer about a research study showing, among other beneficial aspects, a lowered risk of breast cancer recurrence in women who received psychological counseling. The authors hypothesize that stress hormones may ultimately affect cancer growth. Even while we know that the brain plays a major role in the endocrine system and mood affects stress hormones, I think most would find this outcome very surprising. Pleasantly so, if you happen to be a psychologist or embrace any other kind of pseudo-scientific beliefs. The hidden powers of the brain continue to amaze.

However the problem with the brain, I find, is that it has, well, a mind of its own. How many times had I not wanted to eat that piece of chocolate but have been overruled by my brain, which appears to have an irrational fondness for chocolate, potato chips, and babies? (But no, I don't eat babies.) Too many. How many times have I wanted to do one thing but my brain insisted I do something else? It often insists on thinking about something completely irrelevant even while I'm trying hard to work on something else -- and does so VERY LOUDLY.

Another problem with the mind is that if something goes just very slightly wrong with it -- or even not necessarily wrong, but just slightly different -- you can be in for a world of hurt. And if something goes just slightly wronger still, you're basically fucked. Such is the power of the mind.

So does that mean mind has domain over matter? It depends. The mind clearly has influence over the matter it can physically control, such as your own body or, in turn, things your body can physically control. You can in fact learn to lower your heart rate or raise your temperature in some situations, just by using your mind. You can even punch someone in the chin and change their own mind! But unlike what dreamy gurus with long beards selling cheap metaphysics -- or other deluded and deceitful characters -- would have you believe, your mind cannot influence matter it has no connection to or physical laws it has no control over. It cannot influence the properties of steel or the laws of probability or the force of gravity. Well, except insofar as the gravity of any situation is contingent on the perception of your own mind; if you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter. Mind over matter. Hey, I’ll drink to that.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Important PSA

Important public safety announcement, complete with illustration, from here (as far as I can tell, these people are serious!):

Yes officer, I was driving and there was a distraction on the side of the road...
Immodest dress can cause traffic accidents and other public hazards

But my scientific observations show otherwise: there are many more horrible traffic accidents when there's snow outside and people are at their most modest! Obviously, dressing too modest is what causes accidents. For the love of all that is good and proper, we need to convince everyone to wear tank tops and shorty shorts when walking outside, especially in the wintertime. Think about all the lives saved and heartache avoided!