Psychoneuroimmunology and the mind’s impact on health

If you are a skier like me, you likely revelled in watching the alpine skiing events during this years’ Olympic Winter Games held in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Having raced myself when I was younger, I recall the feeling of being in the starting gate with all the anticipation and excitement it brings. But my memories are more than mere recollections of “images” in my head, for I also have vivid muscle memory, and when watching and cheering for Lindsey Vonn and Ted Ligety, I can literally feel my leg muscles contract as if I were on the course myself. Because I skied for so much of my life, my experience now as a spectator brings me back to the hardwired responses that I can call up even to this day in a very intuitive way simply by visualizing a course.

Researchers at Stanford have now corroborated what athletes and psychologists have long believed: that visualizing ourselves performing a task, such as skiing down a race course, or engaged in other routines, improves our performance and increases our success rate. The findings, reported by neuroscientists in Neuron, suggest that mental rehearsal prepares our minds for real-world action. Using a new tool called a brain-machine interface, the researchers have shown how mental learning translates into physical performance and offers a potentially new way to study and understand the mind.

Could this new tool assist us in replicating cognitive responses to real-world settings in a controlled environment? More studies will need to be carried out in order to further test these findings and better understand the results. And one potential point to take into account is that preforming a real action is different than performing the same task mentally via a brain-imaging interface given that one’s muscles, skeletal system, and nervous system are all working in tandem; but, a brain-imaging interface would indeed seem to have very practical implications for those who use prosthetics or are who are paralyzed. As our knowledge of biomechanics and neuroscience advances, as well as our capabilities to interface the two, we may be able to utilize this technology to assist us in creating more life-like prosthetics and perhaps, harnessing the mind’s inborn processes and complex synapses, help others walk again.

Looking toward the future, another interesting subject of research would be to use a brain-imaging interface to study psychoneuroimmunology. We may not have the technology or ability to conduct such a study at the moment, but it seems plausible that in the near future we could develop the tools needed to conduct more rigorous research on the interactions between psychological processes and the nervous and immune systems. If visualizing winning a ski race improves our performance, why not also envisioning good health outcomes: resilient bodies, strong immune systems, plentiful and efficient white blood cells. Simply willing ourselves to health might not be possible, but, to be sure, having a positive outlook has been shown to impact the outcome of disease, while conversely, increased levels of fear and distress before surgery have been associated with worse outcomes. These are but a few examples of the increasing evidence of the mind’s impact on health. It highlights the importance of recognizing a holistic approach that considers the roles of behavior, mood, thought, and psychology in bodily homeostasis.

This raises an interesting question though: what is the optimal balance of understanding the causes of disease versus believing in and visualizing good health? Insofar as we know that stress makes us sick, we don’t want to over-think risk factors, the myriad causes of illness, or epidemiology and all of its minutiae indispensable to modern medicine and culture; on the other hand, nor do we want to just ignore the data and adopt a fatalistic attitude or a blind faith without any deference to the hard facts. At the same time, consider how many people have become cured, walked again, or beat advanced cancer in defiance of all conventional medical knowledge and despite the even best statistics or prognoses suggesting the sheer impossibility. Certainly we must be cognizant of the fact that behavioral and psychological events can influence the immune system. “Psychoneuroimmunology,” says Jorge H. Daruna, “is essentially an integrative discipline. It seeks to shed light on how mental events and processes modulate the function of the immune system and how, in turn, immunological activity is capable of altering the function of the mind.” There is a conversation between the brain and the immune system, much the same way there is a connection between the snow and a skier’s legs. The immune system sends signals to the brain and the brain speaks to the cells of the immune system.

So how can we best reduce our stress and thereby improve our health? How do we balance our belief in science and medicine while also maintaining our belief in the full potential of the human spirit, energy, passion, vitality—call it what you wish. The best analogy I can think of is Lindsey Vonn. She trains meticulously, with purpose in mind; she listens to her coaches, taking their collective wisdom into account; and she studies the course carefully, visualizing herself on the podium; but perhaps most importantly, when the time comes to push out of the starting gate, she lets go of all of this and believes—deeply, sincerely, with a smile on her face, and with all of her will—that she will do her very best.



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