Can You Think Yourself Sick?
His job was not a small one, and no unworthy or unstable base would do.
Renés Descartes—widely acclaimed as the philosopher who gave western thought its unique character—knew he had to find a suitable starting point—a launching pad upon which an entire system of philosophical inquiry could be built.
For Descartes, that sure foundation came from a realization that, first of all, thought exists. From there he reasoned that in order for thought to exist, there must be a thinker.
Therein, said Descartes, is a logical and true principle: Cogito, ergo sum (I think, therefore I am).
Oddly enough, Descartes arrived at his conclusion by means of doubt. “I can doubt everything but one thing,” he reasoned, “I cannot doubt that I doubt—for (if I do) I have shown myself to be doubting.”
Now you understand why philosophers often have headaches (and few friends). Yet, there is a point to be considered here: If thought can be seen as a base point of reality, can your thoughts effect your reality? Can you think yourself into sickness—or into health?
Descartes was not only the father of modern philosophy, but the father of dualism. For him, the body and mind are two separate entities—one limited and defined, the other unlimited and without form.
In opposition to Descartes are those thinkers deemed materialists. For philosophers who adopt that stance, the mind is nothing more than chemical processes at work within the brain. Descartes, the materialists say, was right as far as the notion that thinking and being are the same—but wrong in that they are not of different composition. The mind is the body and the body is the mind. The materialist might say, “I think because I am.”
A third primary way of thinking about mind and body is that of the idealists. For them, nothing is solid. The world is made up of vibrations. Some of these vibrations appear as thoughts. Others appear as bodies. The two differ only in the arrangement of the vibrations. As in materialistic thought, body and mind are the same. Idealism can be seen as the invisible progenitor of materialism. For the idealist, only the I exists. An idealistic foundational statement might be, “I [is] am.”
These are simplified explanations of course. Within the broad areas of dualism, materialism and idealism there are numerous schools of thought—each claiming to know something the others have missed.
Thinking and health
Back to the question about thinking and health: does my thinking impact my physical being, or are the two unrelated? Does it matter whether or not I think I’m ill? Can I help myself heal by engaging my mind in the battle against disease and disability?
As with most issues, there are strong arguments and passionate stances on both sides.
One group pointing out a definite connection between mind and body is the American Psychological Association (APA). That group maintains that what you think is just as important as what you do (the materialist would point out that thinking is doing). One study quoted on the APA website points out that those who are diagnosed with clinical depression are twice as likely to develop heart disease as their non-depressed peers.
Taking it further, consider the mysterious ailment known as “Morgellons Disease.” Sufferers report sensations that feel like bugs crawling on their skin. Moreover, they develop horrible sores that itch and ooze. The condition is very real—but a study by federal health authorities and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) concluded the disease is caused, not by invisible bugs, but by the mind of the one afflicted.
Are you yet unconvinced that what you think can make you sick? Try this experiment: when you awaken in the morning, decide to have a horrible day. Declare to the world that everything is wrong, nothing is right, you feel horrible and nothing is going to work out for good. Determine to experience the worst day ever—and see what happens, see how you feel.
On the following morning, arise with joy. Tell yourself that nothing can interfere with your day, that you are happy, healthy and free. Go forth with a smile and gratitude in your heart. Say hello to strangers. Walk in assurance that the world is conspiring to see you succeed.
Take notes both days. Then compare results.
- Does the mind affect the body?
- What do you think?