Friday, October 31, 2008

Mind-body panel 1: Esther Sternberg - "Esther, you're going to ruin your career by doing this."

National Institutes of Health physician Esther Sternberg, author of The Balance Within: The Science Connecting Health and Emotions (W.H. Freeman & Co., 2000), reminded the panelists and audience at the recent Beyond the Mind-Body Problem symposium that people do change their opinions, though it often takes a long time. The closed-minded attitude she encountered when she first started studying the way the brain and the immune system talk to each other has dissipated over the years.
In the area of my study—which is the science of the mind-body connection, the connection between the brain and the immune system, the mind, our emotions, and our immune system and health—this field was disparaged when I first got into it more than 20, 30 years ago. The Chair of my department, when I was training in the United States, said, "Esther, you're going to ruin your career by doing this."

And I, perversely, didn't listen to him, because I was convinced ... by having seen a patient who had been perfectly well until he was treated with a drug that changes brain serotonin—this drug is not used anymore—and he developed an autoimmune scarring, a painful disease, and that was to me such powerful evidence that you can change the brain and have an immune response or immune disease as a result that I spent the rest of my career trying to understand the connection between the brain and the immune system.
The problem, she explained, was that she could not even discuss the question of whether stress can make us sick - even though that is a commonplace today.
Fifteen years ago, I was afraid to ask a scientific audience: “How many of you believe that stress can make you sick?” The scientists were stressed—although they denied that they were stressed—just to hear that question. And now, it's accepted, it is part of the dogma, and why is that? It’s because we’ve been able to prove, in the language of science, that these phenomena that we all knew for thousands of years are real. We can show the molecules that make you feel sick, we can see the different parts of the brain that are activated when you feel sick. We can see what happens when you inject an immune molecule into the belly and change how the brain functions and so on.

That's not to say that that's the only way we should think; I think it’s wonderful to think outside the box. But if you're going to convince a large community of scientists, you need to use the language of scientists, and I have seen it happen. I have seen in this aspect of the field that I study a sea change so that the vast majority of scientists and physicians now accept the notion that the brain and the immune system talk to each other, that stress can make you sick, that believing can make you well—that’s a little more on the cutting edge and not fully accepted yet, I won’t say fringe but some scientists think of it that way—but because of the wonderful researchers we have here today and who will be speaking this afternoon, research by
Mario Beauregard and Andy Newberg, the evidence is there to help scientists and physicians believe.
Next: Mind-body panel 1: Henry Stapp - Quantum theory makes us agents

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