Since Norman Cousins published Anatomy of an Illness, describing how he apparently used humor and laughter to cure himself of a serious illness, both scientists and lay people have grown increasingly interested in the potential of the mind to exert positive effects on the body. Recent scientific advances have in fact made it possible to link thoughts and feelings to specific changes in brain activity, and to follow the pathways through which mental states influence the body’s health.
The Network on Mind-Body Interactions was established to study these pathways, and to determine how major changes in "central states" such as sleep and meditation are reflected in changes in the body. The network’s goal is to help us understand how our perceptions and thoughts about the world are manifested by specific changes in brain activity, and to use that knowledge to examine how the mind affects the physiological systems that influence health.
This network studies the interactions of mind, body, and social processes as they influence health. To address this complex set of relationships, the network draws researchers from a wide range of fields, including psychiatry, medicine, cognitive neuroscience, psychophysiology, neurophysiology, neuroimmunology, and the history of science.
The network uses a conceptual model with four levels:
Social context: The network is concerned with the person and the social group as active agents influencing health and disease. Researchers are looking at social relationships in relation to emotions, short-term health, and long-term health and resilience.
Mind-brain links: Traditionally, mind and body have been separate areas of study, the first addressed by psychology and cognitive science, the second by neuroscience and neurophysiology. The Mind-Body Network is attempting to unite these approaches and develop a unified view of the workings of the mind in the context of a physical brain with clear mechanistic links to the rest of the body.
Brain-body links: The network’s researchers are exploring various ways in which the brain communicates with the body—including endocrine and autonomic paths and their interaction with immune functions—and how these systems respond to different central states of the mind-brain.
Links to health: Finally, the network is addressing how the different elements in the model mediate an effect on short-term and long-term health. In particular, they seek a better understanding of healthy states and improved health in persons with normal and impaired function.
Progress and Plans
The network has formed working groups to carry out studies in six areas:
Social Neuroscience and the Psychobiology of Daily Life: The network is examining connections between social support and health in a major study of the impact of loneliness and daily stress on psychological, physiological, and immune system functioning in young adults. To help them conduct this study, the researchers are developing new assessments to measure cognitive functioning and cardiovascular reactivity outside of laboratory settings.
Psychological Profiles of Emotions, Vulnerability, and Resilience: The network is beginning a major extension to a 40-year study of lifetime health (the Wisconsin Longitudinal Cohort). Network researchers are using laboratory tests, physical exams, immune system response, and sleep studies to compare individuals who have been resilient or vulnerable to major life stresses. They will also examine how stress alters an individual’s ability to plan rational responses to daily problems or to engage in highly reactive problem solving.
Sleep, Sleep Debt, Vigilance, and Fatigue: The network is studying the physiological, emotional, cognitive, and immune system effects of restricted and extended sleep in adults. The studies should help us understand how we benefit from sleep and how improved sleep may help the elderly and other groups.
Meditation, Restoration, and Affect Regulation: The network has begun an extensive controlled trial of the effect of Mindfulness Meditation training and practice on the work performance and psychological and health status of employees in a corporate setting. In laboratory work, researchers are evaluating the learning processes and brain mechanisms that attach positive memories and emotions to common objects, such as pictures of loved ones, that people use to help them feel better.
Animal Models of Psychosocial Processes and Immunity: The network is carrying out three animal studies of immune system function and behavior. One looks at how social living conditions may enhance resistance to breast cancer. A second addresses the ways in which maternal behaviors and early nurturing may enhance or impair the future health of offspring. The third looks at the biological mechanisms through which stress impairs the working of the immune system.
Emotions and Social Connectedness in Cancer Patients: Preliminary research suggests that group psychotherapy helps prolong survival in women who have breast cancer. The network is exploring how the lives of these patients may be improved by group therapy, how it helps them cope with their disease and participate more fully in their medical treatment, and how it allows them to function more effectively in their daily lives and in relationships with friends and loved ones.