28 May Confusing the Body to Exploit the Mind
When I was in college I started a band with some friends. We played noisy chaotic music. When we were putting out our first 7 inch single we added the phrase “confusing the body to exploit the mind” to the cover art. The idea of getting lost in music to access some part of the mind that one was normally cut off from was an important part of music and art to me. 25 years later I no longer play music in a band, but I am even more interested in this idea of the intersection of mind and body; as well as the intersection of science and art.
While I was in the band I had occasional bouts of back pain. My shoulders hurt from the tension filled way I played as well as the weight of my bass. A couple of times I “threw out my back” trying to carry a heavy amp by myself. In these situations I would be stuck in bed for a few days and then the stiffness and pain would recede. However, in the mid 90’s, after my brother went to see Dr. John Sarno and healed from debilitating hand pain, I read the doctor’s book, “Healing Back Pain”, and banished my own problems for a decade. His admonition to think emotionally rather than physically made perfect sense to me. I knew that stress had played a role in my back pain, and this framing helped me to keep it at bay. He believed the genesis for the pain in most of his patients was based in their emotions rather than in structural problems including herniated discs. As an orthopedist, he found that the vast majority of patients that he saw had pain that didn’t correlate with the diagnosis they had been given. Hundreds of studies on the relationship between herniated discs and pain later confirmed his suspicions. Still however, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, most physicians still consider a herniated disc to be the source of the pain.
Instead he argued, from a Freudian perspective, that the pain was caused by mild, and harmless, oxygen deprivation, postulating that the subconscious was activating the autonomous nervous system in order to distract the mind from repressed emotions that threatened to explode to the surface. While Freud’s ideas had been pushed to the edges of mainstream thought, Dr. Sarno came of age when they were still considered sound. He saw the increasing mechanization of medicine as problematic.
I grew up in a household in which religious thought was not taken very seriously. As such, I ended up majoring in religious studies in college. I was always resistant to orthodoxy, but I found that behind all of the structures there were profound connections between religious impulses and thoughts. When I read Dr. Sarno’s book I connected with the healing ideas on a personal level, but I also appreciated the impulse of the book, which looked beyond the orthodoxy of medicine to find broader answers that made sense.
A few years after I left the band I had moved on to making films. It was difficult to raise money, and get our films out into the world, but we were young and energetic, and muscled through. Just hours before finishing our first documentary, about a punk rock publisher taking on a discredited bio of GW Bush, our first daughter was born. We spent her first year hustling to get our film seen. Our final day of shooting was Sept 10, 2001, so a movie that looked askance at GW Bush wasn’t in high demand.
When she was nearly two years old we started our second documentary. It involved a grueling and chaotic first few months of shooting which was hard on our family. At the same time we stumbled into buying a foreclosed vacation home. Things became unbearably stressful and despite my efforts to recognize the emotions and the stress associated with them, I ended up on the floor screaming in pain. In the words of Funkadelic, I had not been able to “free my mind”, and my ass had therefore not followed.
After getting an MRI and being told I needed to have immediate surgery, I made my way to Dr. Sarno and slowly began to heal. 10 years later I am still on that journey, and a big part of the healing process has been making a documentary about Dr. Sarno and his work. Shortly after my initial visit to him we showed him our first documentary and he agreed to let us make a film. However, after trying for several years we simply couldn’t figure out how to make it, and we couldn’t raise any money. Years went by, and we made other films. We continued to think about Dr. Sarno and the importance of his work, and we continued to kick the can down the road. One of the reasons we had trouble raising money was that his theories seems so outlandish to most people. It was deeply challenging to people to consider that their emotions might be involved in the pain that they felt. It made people angry. However, we also encountered people everywhere who had been healed by simply reading the book.
After an 8 year struggle to finish the documentary that began with my first serious bout of pain, “Battle for Brookln”, we were launched it to great reviews. However, we couldn’t get it into festivals which made distribution almost impossible. I worked tirelessly to promote the film. In fact I failed to heed my bodies warnings and I worked way beyond my own capacity. When I was once again unable to fight off the crushing weight of my stress, and ended up screaming on my office floor, I screamed at my partners to “grab the camera”. I resolved to make the film.
Over the last couple of years I have journeyed around the US to talk to other doctors, and thinkers, in attempt to get to a deeper understanding of the mind body connection. I have also struggled to heal more fully. We have gathered most of our materials are getting close to putting the film together.
Part of my process has been to observe how ideas related to Dr. Sarno’s work move through the world, and last week I read of a succession of articles that were deeply related to our film. On article focused on a using a balance of emotional and technical means to restructure memories in order to lessen the effects of PTSD. Another focused on using purely emotional techniques to do so. The third focused on “hacking” the body to trick it into reversing the process that caused the symptoms.
First I read Michael Specter’s article in the New Yorker, “Partial Recall” about Daniela Schiller’s research on the connection between memory and fear. Dr. Schiller’s father, a holocaust survivor, never discussed his experience when his daughter was growing up, and he even goes so far as to ignore the two minutes of sirens that wail each year to recognize the victims of the genocide.
She went on to study the connection between PTSD and memory, and has focused on ways to reconsolidate memories in order to reduce or eliminate the fear associated with them. Her work recognizes the intensive link between mind and body in terms of our experience and our health. When people have PTSD its as if their flight or fight reaction is on hyper drive and they can’t find a way to turn it off. She has found that interrupting the process of reconsolidating these memories when they are revisited, it is possible to reduce their effect on the body. This process seems to find a balance between dealing with both the emotional and the physical aspects of the problem.
A few days later I saw two articles in the New York Times Magazine which both deal with how the autonomic nervous system affects the body. The first focuses on Dr. Bassel Van der kolk’s complex approach to treating PTSD with a variety of different methods that deal brain body interaction. His theories seem to connect with Schiller’s in terms of the painful effect that memory has on the body. However, wheras Schiller’s approach to understanding the problem involves figuring out neural pathways and proteins, as well as ways to disrupt and affect the process of memory reconsolidation, Van der Kolk focuses on dealing with the emotions more directly. This is an oversimplification of both of their work, but I am trying to make a point about how they differ in their framing of, and approach to, the problem. However, they both seem to be challenging paradigms within their fields.
Interestingly, the second article in the Times deals with figuring out how to disrupt the bodies process of overproducing proteins that cause inflammation involved in rheumatoid arthritis. The process is purely physical and does not consider the role of emotions in the problem. Kevin Tracey figured out that sending electrical impulses to the vagus nerve can “hack” the system and shut down this overproduction. He’s had some tremendous results with a small group of patients. They have all reported much less pain and better movement. This is clearly good news. However, there is a great deal of data that indicates that the suppression of emotions is related to rheumatoid arthritis, just as it is in Dr. Sarno’s work. If we fix the symptom without addressing the cause, what might happen?
I believe that a balanced approach, that takes into consideration the role that emotions play in both cause and cure, as well as what we might do to alleviate physical symptoms is imperative.