The image of Stephen Hawking, who died at age 76, in his motorized wheelchair, with head contorted slightly to one side and hands crossed over to work the controls, caught the public imagination, as a true symbol of the triumph of mind over matter . A man, who overcame terrible physical impairment to become one of the leading physicists of our time, opening the mysteries of the cosmos to millions around the globe; a very fitting start to this essay on the power of the human brain.
The phrase "mind over matter" first appeared in 1863 in The Geological Evidence of the Antiquity of Man by Sir Charles Lyell (1797–1875) and was first used to refer to the increasing status and evolutionary growth of the minds of animals and man throughout Earth history. Since then, countless studies have been undertaken to explore the ways in which the mind can control our moods and actions, including the field of parapsychology, the study of mental phenomena that are excluded from or inexplicable by orthodox scientific psychology (such as hypnosis, telepathy, etc.) .
Many studies have linked meditation with both physical and mental health benefits. Meditation research, particularly in the last 10 years or so, points to an ability of the brain to change and optimize in a way we didn't know previously was possible. Several neuroscientists have studied Buddhist monks, for example, and found that years of meditative practice can dramatically increase neuroplasticity, helping the brain to reorganize itself by creating new neural connections. For example, brain scans revealed that because of meditation, 66-year-old French monk Matthieu Ricard, an aide to the Dalai Lama, has the largest capacity for happiness ever recorded. University of Wisconsin researchers hooked up 256 sensors to his head and found that Ricard had an unusually large propensity for happiness and reduced tendency toward negativity, due to neuroplasticity. The Neuroeconomist Brian Knutson hooked up several monks' brains to MRI scanners to examine their risk and reward systems. Meditation on compassion can produce powerful changes in the brain. When the monks were asked to meditate on unconditional loving-kindness and compassion, their brains generated powerful gamma waves that may have indicated a compassionate state of mind .
Other research has used mind control to address a myriad of maladies from eating disorders to Parkinson’s disease. Research at the University of Colorado showed that normal patterns of appetite stimulation in the brain are effectively reversed in those with eating disorders. Rather than the hypothalamus, a brain region that regulates appetite, driving motivation to eat, signals from other parts of the brain can override the hypothalamus in eating disorders . Researchers at Ohio University have found that the brain’s cortex is critical in maintaining muscle strength following a prolonged period of immobilization, and that mental imagery may be key in reducing the associated muscle loss . And, biofeedback techniques are being used to help people with Parkinson’s disease to improve their balance .
According to the CDC, 50 million adults live with chronic pain, which to some degree explains the current opioid crisis. Researchers have spent many years trying to understand the brain’s role in pain and whether it can be “trained” to combat acute pain. Research on male rats suggested that two pathways in the brain converging at the amygdala regulate the anxiety and depression that often accompanies chronic pain. One of these pathways may represent a top-down mechanism that controls negative emotion under stress. These new insights into the complex relationship between pain and emotion may help to improve treatment of neuropsychiatric disorders that develop in patients suffering from chronic pain . Another group at the University of Luxemburg has run experiments to demonstrate that one can teach the brain to feel less pain, just as the physiological reaction of saliva secretion was provoked in Pavlov's dogs by the ringing of a bell . In a study of 44 patients being treated for chronic pain, researchers at Kent State University and Case Western University found that a technique called “guided imagery”, which changes the sensory images that invoke pain, is an effective supplement to medication therapy .
A general conclusion from the “mind over matter” research is that people's illness perceptions bear a direct relationship to several important health outcomes, including their level of functioning and ability, utilization of health care, adherence to treatment plans laid out by health care professionals, and even overall mortality. In fact, some research suggests that how a person views his/her illness may play a bigger role in determining his health outcomes than the actual severity of the disease .
Finally, a word or two about an extreme form of “mind over matter”, namely Psychokinesis (PK), sometimes referred to as telekinesis. PK is the ability to move things or otherwise affect the property of things with the power of the mind. Of psychic abilities, true psychokinesis is one of the rarest. Few have been able to demonstrate this ability, and even those demonstrations are highly contested by the skeptics. How psychokinesis works is unknown for certain, but many parapsychologists think that it is a demonstration of the physical influence of a person's brain in the physical world. Some researchers suspect there might be a quantum connection. Unpredictable, often bizarre effects have been documented in the world of subatomic particles, ruled by the perplexing laws of quantum mechanics. Another theory is that psychokinesis is the manipulation of a sort of human "magnetic field" around the body, which can be concentrated in a specific area. For this to work, they say, you must be able to relax completely and focus your attention without distraction. Although the "how" of PK remains unknown, research and experimentation on this phenomenon continue in respected research labs around the world .
I believe that all of us exercise “mind over matter” on a daily basis in order to conduct our lives despite the various aches and pains that beset us. As we grow older and the aches and pains spread and increase in intensity, it becomes harder to put the mind first, and we dwell in a world of discomfort, with only brief glimpses of peace and calm. Eventually “matter” takes over; such is life, unless you are a Tibetan monk.