Wednesday, July 18, 2007

We Didn't Have the Tools To See

Dr. Esther Sternberg discussing new insights into the molecular level of the mind-body connection on Speaking of Faith with Krista Tippett:

Scientists need evidence. We need measurable proof. That started with Descartes in the 1600s. And at that time, 400 or 500 years ago, science didn't have the tools to measure something as ephemeral and not concrete as abstract as an emotion.

You can measure disease. Disease is an abnormality of anatomy. So with the anatomists of the 16th century, when they started to dissect the human body, they discovered that when there was a pneumonia, there was a hole in the lung. You know, there was a problem in the liver, there was an anatomical problem in the liver. So the assumption became that disease is associated with an abnormality of anatomy, which allowed huge advances in medicine. You know, Laennec, in the 19th century, when he developed the stethoscope, developed it so that you could hear problems in the lung. Without seeing them, you could actually hear them. And so that's concrete; that's easy to understand.

But we didn't have the tools until now, until very recently, to see the living human brain at work with neuroimaging. We didn't have the tools to see into how the nerve cells function, the biochemistry, the chemicals that change, the nerve chemicals that are released, the electrical activity that changes. We couldn't see into the genes that make these cells function until very, very recently.

And here is a quote from the book:

"Emotions are always with us but constantly shifting. They change the way we see the world and the way we see ourselves. Diseases come and go but on a different time scale. And if they change the way we see the world, they do it through emotions. Could something as vague and fleeting as an emotion actually affect something as tangible as a disease? Can depression cause arthritis? Can laughing and a positive attitude ameliorate, even help to cure disease? We all suspect that the answers to these questions are yes, yet we can't say why and certainly not how. Indeed, entire self-cure industries have been built on this underlying assumption. But physicians and scientists, until recently, dismissed such ideas as nonsense because there did not appear to be a plausible biological mechanism to explain the link. Part of the reason for this is that scientists and lay people speak different languages. But so do emotions and disease. Poetry and song are the language of emotions. Scientific precision, logic, and deductive reasoning are the language of disease."