I’ve always been fascinated by the link between the physical body, emotions and thoughts. Sadly some therapists seem to discount the importance of the physical body to the whole of our lives. I used to teach a nutrition course for therapists and I remember one student on the course telling me that she was only on the course because she had to do it to meet the requirements of her professional association: “You see, I’m interested in psychological problems,” she explained (rather superiorly). I could not convince her that nutritional problems can have a profound effect on a person’s psychological state. Even if she didn’t want to work in that area herself, she needed to understand something about it so she could refer some people to suitable therapists with a real interest in nutrition.
There is a lot of interest in the effect of emotions on the physical body: the detailed understanding of the fight-flight response, the study of the placebo effect, the description of the so-called ‘cancer personality’ all look at the effect of emotions and personality on the physical body.
But it's not a one-way street. The physical body also has a profound effect on the emotions too. When I tore a ligament in my hand, I became very grumpy because of the pain. People who are short of the vitamin B complex may feel jittery and tired. In a study funded by Mind, the UK mental health charity, 80% of the participants said they felt better (emotionally and mentally) if they cut down on sugar. They have an interesting page on their website aimed at the general public and describing how food can affect your mood.
But research suggests that the situation is even more complicated than this.
In a fascinating book, The Sense Of Being Stared At, Rupert Sheldrake talks about experiments where senders and receivers were in separate soundproofed rooms and could not communicate by any of the known senses. The sender focused attention on the receiver in 30-second random bursts. The receiver’s emotional state was monitored by electrodes on the finger that recorded changes in skin resistance. Sheldarke says: “The overall result from 15 separate studies in San Antonio was highly statistically significant.” So not only can our own intentions affect our physical body, but so can other people’s. This is a very good book to read if you are sceptical or interested in the fields of clairvoyance, telepathy and prescience.
Matt Ridley is one of my favourite writers on science. He is a lucid writer making difficult topics entertaining. In his book Nature Via Nurture he details lots of different research which has profound implcations for who and what we are.
In this book he talks about work by Stephen Suomi and his colleagues on rhesus monkeys. Among other pieces of research they studied the serotonin transporter gene. Like many genes, this comes in different versions. They found that one variation of the gene produced a ‘powerful and long-lasting reaction to maternal deprivation, whereas the other version of the gene is immune to maternal deprivation’. Ridley goes on to say:
"Since this gene also varies in human beings and the variations correlate with personality differences, this is a big finding. Translated into human terms it would imply that some children can be virtually orphaned and are none the worse for it; others need to be very well nurtured by their parents to turn out normal."
In other words nature in the form of genes and nurture in the form of parental behaviour work together to determine how a child responds to a difficult childhood.
Although I’ve said I really like Matt Ridley’s books, there is one major problem with this one. He says that some scientists only see nurture, and others only see nature at work in human beings. He makes the point repeatedly that some researchers find the influence of nature (or nurture) in some particular case and then extrapolate that everything is down to that. But though he sees both nature and nurture at work, he doesn't look at the possibility that other factors are also there - there seems to be no room in his book for something other than nature or nurture to be at work. There is no room for free will, the soul or other explanations of what makes us who we are.
Undoubtedly nature and the physical body is important. Undoubtedly nurture and the emotional life is important too, but there are other influences at work too - some practitioners, for example, look at ancestral patterns, past lives and/or karma.
In October 2007 I attended the excellent Battle Of Ideas weekend in London. One of the topics discussed by a panel including lawyers and scientists was under the title "My brain made me do it: biology and freedom". There was lots of discussion about the brain and the physical body and how behaviour is influenced by them, but when it came to the crunch most of the panel agreed that there is something called free will, which doesn't fit in either with nature or nurture.
Our work as therapists often fits into that niche of 'not nature' and 'not nurture' to help people work with the bodies they have and the life-story they have to become something more important, to become themselves.
Copyright 2014 Jane Thurnell-Read