This piece is prompted by Oliver Burkeman’s column in Saturday’s Guardian (28th April 2012) which divides people into ‘dualists’ and ‘physicalists’. The underlying philosophical assumption of a ‘dualist’ is that their mind is a separate entity from their body, and ‘physicalists’ believe that:
“everything that happens in the mind must arise from the spongy grey tissues of the brain”.
He reported research findings which indicate that ‘physicalists’ are more likely to take care of their bodies by eating healthily, whereas ‘dualists’ are prone to treat their bodies less respectfully. Whether we think our body is ourself or just a container for it makes a difference to how we behave. He goes on to say that if you believe that physicalism is correct, instead of turning to psychotherapy for problems of the mind, physical intervention is the way to go: “FIRST, GO FOR A SWIM”, he recommends.
I am a physicalist – I wonder if there are many people who have studied neuroscience who are not? – and I agree with the swimming part, or walking, cycling…. But I think Oliver Burkeman has missed out an important point. If the mind and the body are essentially the same thing, connected through the nervous system, then the influencing can go both ways.
Physical activities – exercise, breathing – have an impact on our state of mind. With almost every client, I enquire about diet and exercise. But in the opposite direction, our thoughts or mindset can have an impact on our bodily wellbeing. For example, practising mindfulness can reduce physical symptoms of anxiety such as racing heartrate, sweating, muscle tension. Years of research under the Positive Psychology banner has demonstrated the link between optimism and general wellbeing.
And making-sense-of, understanding something (a mind-based activity) enables us to make different choices. Recently I ran some workshops on resilience, which included this information: that the body doesn’t distinguish between the kind of stress it’s under. Mental stress, being too cold, blood sugar being too ‘spiky’, it’s all the same to our adrenal glands which have to deal with the stress regardless of the cause. A week later I received a text from a group I trained, to say they had swapped their sweets and biscuits for nuts and fruit in meetings, and were feeling the benefits. Knowledge is power to choose how we behave – one of the ways our mind influences our body.
As usual (although it doesn’t make for pithy newspaper articles) the answer is not ‘either/or’ but both.