The Psychophysiological Approach

“The Physician should not treat the disease, but the person suffering from it.”

A brief survey of healing practices throughout history and throughout the present world is both illuminating and thought-provoking. From the “miraculous” cures of the faith healers and the witch doctors to the curious successes of homeopathy and acupuncture; from the chemically oriented treatments of the allopath to the strict dietary proscriptions of the naturopath; from the operations of the surgeon to the manipulations of the chiropractor or osteopath: we seem to find almost every kind of contradiction in theory. To make matters even worse, there appear to be chronicles of undeniable success using all these methods.

Even within a single healing discipline, huge variations in response are found. Two persons, in apparently the same health, will respond differently to the same medication, one experiencing side effects or an allergy, the other getting well. The same incision in two similar individuals can produce results as different as rapid, complete healing; the development of internal adhesions; or an infection, which may require repeated surgery.

Moreover, a single disease process such as diabetes, migraine headaches, or asthma can range from a mild annoyance to a severe affliction. And because there are few indicators at the outset of a disease as to what its course will be, watching and waiting are often our only means of determination. Many physicians have learned to avoid predicting. Who has not heard stories of people who were told by doctors they had a fatal disease, only to recover fully, or those who were told their problem was minor, only to find a lifelong handicap develop.

Among the most interesting of all the healing disciplines are those that produce a physical change by focusing on mental processes. Most of us are attuned to the concepts of Western medicine: we recognize the rationale behind the use of scalpel, antibiotics, plaster cast, and anticancer poison, and can see the results of the use of artificial kidneys, cardiac valve replacements, and laser beam treatment of eye disease.

Yet the family practitioner has long known the ploy of offering a child a quarter for his or her wart. The psychological motivation to gain the quarter would, in many cases, be sufficient to enable the body to eliminate the virus that was responsible for the wart. The smiling child would then collect the reward from the doctor a week later. Where do we look to find the physiological explanation for this?

Consider also the case of the man with gangrene in his toes who, when scheduled for surgical removal of the foot, became “miraculously” well within a week after visiting a faith healer. How do we account for the many reports of cancer and tumor inhibition or regression when patients are taught meditation and deep relaxation? What is the basis for the many drugless cures reported by members of the Christian Science Church?

These represent examples of the psychophysiological approach to disease. Most people recognize that such diseases as asthma, ulcers, and migraine have psychological connections, but on close examination it is difficult indeed to find a disease for which there has not been some report of healing or improvement through approaches such as those described. But why does this kind of approach fail in some cases and yet succeed in apparently identical ones? And, even more interesting, what is the mechanism by which it works in those cases in which it is successful?

One thing is clear: all these approaches draw upon the psychological resources of the patient. The cooperation of the “patient” is paramount. In other words, rather than simply manipulating the person’s physical structure, inner, neural processes are enlisted to aid in the fight against the disease. Somehow changes in the mind are ultimately translated into molecular change.

After studying those aspects common to all these seemingly different disciplines, I attempted to wed this knowledge to the physical and psychological facts about the human mind-body complex I had learned in medical school and verified in my own practice. Slowly there began to emerge a consistent picture relating physical stressors, mental and emotional states, and disease. I recognized that in many ways the human mind (particularly the unconscious) may be viewed as functioning as a device for reducing the equivocality or ambiguity that the higher conscious centers must endure. To accomplish this it learns new material and reproduces things previously learned so as to protect us from experiences that are painful and to enhance our ability to experience rewarding ones. This aspect of mental functioning works in the way that a computer does, and so we may call the brain a biocomputer. Although the analogy is neither complete nor strictly accurate, it will enable us to investigate certain of its operations more efficiently, especially those that transform thought and imagination into emotion and physical change.

We will experientially investigate the conscious and the unconscious. Then we will explore ways of transferring material between these two, developing efficient states and modes of awareness to facilitate this transfer.

We will then explore the laws of positive and negative conditioning (programming), look at our personal memories, and develop approaches that will allow us to strengthen those aspects of our behavior, experience, and attitude that we desire and to deprogram those we find maladaptive. These approaches comprise what I call “software for the mind.”

We will see the importance of emotion as both the prime mover and the ultimate outcome of each mental process and learn how it can, when associated with patterns that escape conscious regulation, produce maladaptive states such as depression, low self-esteem, or uncontrollable anger; habit patterns such as overeating, alcoholism, or procrastination; or even physical disease.

Emotions and Physical Change

It was the study of these physical disease patterns that originally led me to develop the concept of coherency-that the biocomputer evolved to provide effective, nonambiguous relations with self and environment, and that incoherent or faulty programs produce disease states by maladaptively interrelating both mind and body and conscious and unconscious.

Throughout this book we will look at diseases as verbs rather than nouns. By doing this it will become obvious that most diseases are in fact processes, and as such are potentially reversible. When we look at diseases as nouns it tends to produce a crystallization of thoughts and we thus become identified with a disease.

How this works is most easily seen in the stress-related diseases whose final expression involves muscle tension. Conceptually, it is much more difficult to “get rid of a headache” than to relax the muscles in the back of the neck or let go of the tensing there. Many of the positive responses to imagery in diseases of muscle tension (such as asthma, high blood pressure, and gastrointestinal disturbances) are accounted for by the ease of conceptualization. It is usually easy to visualize something tensed becoming relaxed.

Yet in other diseases, such as disorders of glandular functions, infectious diseases, allergic responses, abnormal growth of bodily cells (tumors and cancers), and the degenerative diseases, a mental picture of them as processes is possible, and healing can, in many cases, be facilitated.

Getting rid of a cold may seem difficult to imagine; it is perhaps easier to imagine allowing the body to increase its healing rate to eliminate bacteria that are trying to multiply. Arthritis can be viewed not as a thing, but as a situation in which the joints are inflaming blood vessels are enlarging and carrying certain elements to these areas. Viewed in this way, it is now possible to create imagery of this process reversing.

Critical, then, to the utilization of the imagination for healing is the imaging of the disease as a process. Healers in native cultures know this quite well-possession by a demon is reversible through exorcism. What the chiropractor calls pinched nerves can be visualized as being relieved through an “adjustment.” Similarly, dietary therapy reverses the disease process by fasting to “eliminate the toxins from the body.”

Unfortunately, the Latin-based nomenclature in use by the medical profession tends to make diseases sound like permanent attributes-we call a person a diabetic or arthritic. We say that a person has migraine, and a person given a diagnosis of cancer often does not experience this as a challenge to increase the body’s defences against cells gone awry, but hears the pronouncement as a death sentence, which produces a depression that actually decreases the body’s ability to fight the disease.

One fundamental hypothesis of this book, is that when viewed from the proper perspective it is possible for a person to direct his or her thoughts to influence physical processes that are ordinarily considered to be beyond conscious control.

The Evidence for Conscious Control of Diseases and Normally Unconscious Processes

The past few years have allowed me ample opportunity to observe the many physical effects of deep relaxation, hypnosis, guided and positive programming.

I have seen chronic problems of stomach and intestinal pain, spasm, and hypersecretion become resolved. People with long histories of allergies, hay fever, and repeated colds have put an end to these patterns. Those with continuous anxiety, pounding heart, sweaty palms, and high blood pressure have experienced a resolution of these problems. Even Parkinson’s disease and visual problems have dramatically improved.

Other investigators have found that acne and even tumors may respond to relaxation and suggestion. James Esdaile, M.D., found, as have many other surgeons, that a simple hypnotic induction with suggestions of health will speed healing, retard infection, eliminate postoperative swelling, and provide excellent anesthesia during and after surgery.

Biofeedback researchers assure us that gastric secretion, EEG characteristics, blood flow to selected organs, skin temperature, and metabolic rate are among the many parameters that previously untrained subjects can learn to regulate.

An oral surgeon I know says that during a complicated extraction of a tooth, suggestions will serve to inhibit bleeding so that the area being worked on stays clear and dry. He also tells me that following the extraction, when blood is needed in the area to form a clot, suggestions to this effect can be given to the deeply relaxed patient. At this point the blood will flow until the tooth socket is filled exactly to the brim, then stop! (Other oral surgeons have shared my friend’s experience.)

Still others have found that even a process as complicated as blood sugar control can be affected through thought. Hypnotized subjects will have a rise in blood sugar after imagining they are eating a candy bar. Advanced students of yoga add even more to the list of normally unconscious activities that can be brought under conscious control.

Nearly twenty years ago I attended a professional seminar at which a man named Jack Schwarz demonstrated a remarkable feat. While I held his arm in my hands, he inserted a thin, saber-sharp needle about the length of a knitting needle through the belly of his right biceps muscle. Prior to doing this, he had visualized himself sitting across the room, watching his own demonstration. As a result, I could detect no tensing of the muscle as the needle passed through it and out through the skin on the opposite side of his arm. He showed no sign of pain, and continued to lecture to the group that was present. After about three or four minutes he removed the needle, and in spite of intense squeezing of his arm by one of the people present in the seminar, no blood was shed through the wounds of entry and exit. This feat was even more remarkable in view of the fact that prior to putting the needle into his arm, Schwarz had thrown it to the ground and stepped on it to ensure that it was dirty. His claim was that through mental imagery he was able to prevent infection.

So remarkable were Schwarz’s feats in autonomic self-control that Elmer Green, Ph.D., from the Menninger Institute studied him intensely and wrote several papers concerning his abilities. From all scientific tests available to us, it seems that Jack Schwarz is constructed exactly like every other human being-he bleeds and hurts normally, unless he enters a certain state of concentration and produces mental imagery to change these normally unconscious reactions.

While visiting Green at Menninger, I was able to view his experiments wherein Swami Rama demonstrated his ability to throw his heart into and out of atrial fibrillation at will. I also watched a movie that Green had made in India of an Indian yogi being buried alive for eight hours. He was able to slow his breathing to less than once every few minutes, and to decrease his metabolic rate to such a low level that the meager amount of air in the coffin was able to sustain him.

Numerous books have been published in the past decade presenting an ever-increasing amount of evidence in favor of the hypothesis that the development and course of most commonly encountered physical diseases are dependent, at least in part, on

  1. The amount of stress the individual has been experiencing. In general, the greater the amount of stress the greater the likelihood of disease. There are also indications that the negative effects of stress are cumulative-the number of changes a person has had to deal with, mentally and emotionally, over the past two years is directly related to that person’s likelihood of developing a disease within the next six months.
  2. The individual’s ability to effectively deal with stress, and return the body to a healthy equilibrium.
  3. How the person view himself or herself and the disease-his or her self-image and the image he or she forms to represent the disease to the conscious mind.
  4. Way of life. The person whose way of life includes smoking or drinking as an outlet for tension is paving the way for diseases he or she would be protected from to a greater degree if he or she found other ways to eliminate accumulated tension in the body. Similarly, people who eat for emotional reasons may find that excessive weight vastly increases their likelihood of becoming ill and dying from diseases such as hypertension, coronary thrombosis, or musculoskeletal problems.

The evidence at present, in my opinion, does not imply that all human diseases are the result of stress, the inability to cope with stress, attitude, or way of life. Those that are, however, should obviously be approached through the mind and emotion in addition to physically. This, of course, creates a dilemma-in any given case, it is impossible for anyone, including the patient, to tell to what degree, if any, psychophysiological factors are playing a part. One can either assume they are not, and resign oneself to a life of repeated attacks and symptomatic drug treatment, or explore the unconscious connections and attempt to facilitate the healing process. This latter decision seems to be an especially reasonable one in view of the experiences of those who have shown that the healing rate of even such obviously externally induced problems as animal bites and surgical incisions can be markedly altered through a simple relaxation or hypnotic induction combined with the proper imagery or suggestions.

If unconscious activity, then, is fundamental to all healing, and if it can change the functioning of different organs, what is the mechanism by which this is accomplished? Is there some way, other than the nineteenth-century hypnotists’ “universal Animal Magnetic Fluid,” to conceptualize this process? Finding this would lead to a better understanding of human disease as well as provide a mechanism through which we could eliminate or ameliorate many diseases and prevent others from ever occurring.

The Conscious Control of Chemical and Physical Changes

Have you ever stopped to consider that you can, by the use of your conscious mind, initiate, halt, or alter the rate of the complicated chemical reactions that take place in your body cells?

The chemist never “sees” the chemical molecules interact with each other, but merely adds substances together under certain conditions and exerts a limited control over only such minor factors as whether a chemical reaction starts, stops, or changes its rate. The physicist requires the most complicated equipment to detect small quantities of substance, and when it comes to speaking about a single molecule or atom, the physicist’s knowledge and reasoning become highly speculative.

Our bodies however, don’t suffer from these limitations. Our cells are familiar with atoms and electrons, and deal with them constantly throughout our entire lives. During every minute your body is combining oxygen molecules and sugar molecules in a specific manner so as to produce energy. If each of us (assuming we were all healthy) were to take a small amount of phenobarbital, it would go to the same place in each person’s body and be detoxified through exactly the same kind of chemical reaction. If you catch a cold this winter, it may be a form of virus that has never before been present on the Earth; yet your body will likely be able to analyze its chemical structure and produce an antibody molecule that fits it so exactly that the foreign entity is completely inactivated and the disease soon eradicated.

One thing we all take for granted is the means by which we contract and relax muscles. When you contract a muscle, you are actually producing many specific chemical changes according to a certain specific pattern.

The contraction occurs because of a specific chemical reaction that is repeated over and over again at certain points along the fibrils. When the muscle maintains a certain degree of contraction, the chemical reaction must continue. When you relax the muscle, chemical reaction ceases. If you now consider the speed and delicacy with which your eyelids may be fluttered, the power of the legs of a sprinter, and the extraordinary control of a watchmaker’s fingers, you can get an idea of how intricate is our molecular control of these chemical reactions.

If, while you are sitting alone in your bedroom at night, you hear what sounds like stealthy footsteps somewhere in your house, you might begin to perspire. You might also have noticed that you perspire when speaking in front of a group of people or when being introduced to an important person. In both of these cases, the chemical changes represented by the production of perspiration are produced because of what you are thinking rather than because of a change in temperature. Once again, your body is initiating certain chemical reactions: each sweat cell must move molecules of sodium and chlorine out of your bloodstream, mix them with water, and discharge them onto the surface of your skin.

Perhaps you can recall a time when you almost fell off a roof or when you narrowly avoided an automobile accident. A few seconds later you felt a shocklike tingling throughout your body, followed by rapid heartbeat and respiration. The cells of your body had manipulated chemicals, releasing adrenalin into your bloodstream. Your experience resulted from the changes in your nerve endings, changes produced by this chemical.

During World War II a study showed that people who read the newspaper during breakfast developed ulcers much more frequently than a similar group of people who did not read the newspaper while eating. The emotions produced when the reports of the war were read caused chemical changes, such as changes in gastric secretion and spasm and tension in involuntary muscles.

You can probably think of hundreds of other ways in which a person’s thoughts or imaginings can produce or inhibit chemical reactions in the cells of the body. You will find that you are quite familiar with the ability of your body to outperform even the most well-equipped chemical or physical laboratory in this respect. You may, however, have given little thought to the fact that you can actually learn to control these chemical reactions consciously. Although the bodily responses discussed in the examples just mentioned seem to be related to the external environment, it is actually the imagination that is ultimately responsible for initiating these responses. For instance, you will not perspire if you recognize immediately that the nighttime noises are made by your dog. It is your imagination of danger that gives rise to the perspiration, not the danger itself!

Perhaps the role of the imagination will be understood clearly through a little experience. Sweat! That’s right-start sweating!

You are probably finding this impossible to do. Yet if suddenly your door flew open and an angry grizzly bear walked in, you would probably find it easy to sweat. Yet nothing would have been physically done to you! Your imagination, or mental image of what might happen, would be producing the response. And if your ability to produce fantasy is strong enough, you can picture that bear in your mind’s eye so clearly that your sweat glands will respond to the image.

The Evolution of Imagination

The sciences of archaeology, biology, and physics indicate that the earliest forms of life on our planet seem to have been organisms of only one cell. This cell was responsible for obtaining food, digesting it, and eliminating waste. It was responsible for reproduction and respiration and defense. All of its processes were centralized and controlled by its nucleus.

As time passed, groups of cells began to join together, forming clumps and even hollow balls. Each cluster-forming organism, or colonial organism, was equal to its neighbor. Each was also responsible for its own life processes, and journeying together was mainly a convenience.

Still more time passed, and the animals and plants living on the Earth became more complicated. Specialization began to take place: certain cells were responsible for obtaining food, others for locomotion, and still others for defense. Around this time a problem arose. For those animals that had developed the ability to move, to feel, and to react to sensations, it became necessary to coordinate the activities of these different groups of cells. To put it simply, the eye had to communicate to the foot the location of the food so that the mouth could be taken to it!

Thus was born the need for a communications system or, as we call it in biology, a nervous system. The nervous system consists of specialized cells whose job it is to carry messages back and forth to other groups of cells (organs).

As organisms became more and more complicated, a central area for coordinating activities became necessary. If you imagine a town in which all the phones are connected to each other without going through a central switchboard, you have an idea of the confusion that might have occurred in animals or plants if some kind of brain had not been developed.

Nature found this new organ most valuable for coping with the changing conditions in the world. Areas were developed to store information gleaned from the surroundings, so that it could be used if similar conditions arose later. In other words, animals gained the capacity to learn.

The development of a fixed body temperature led to the appearance of the mammals. Delicate, finely controlled brains could now be developed, and the lives of these animals became dependent more upon their ability to learn and adapt in their individual surroundings than upon limited sets of reflexes passed on genetically, such as those that govern the life of paramecium or a mosquito.

These abilities seem to have reached a zenith with the human, whose versatile body and complex brain are crowned by the specialized function of the nervous system that we experience as the conscious mind. As mammals evolved more adaptable, flexible bodies, nature found it necessary to develop this special part to control the brain itself. Just as the lower centers of the brain, or unconscious mind, is responsible for maintaining the coordination of your body during such activities as swimming or playing tennis, the higher centers, or conscious mind, is responsible for maintaining the overall coordination of the unconscious mind. It is the conscious mind that decides whether to have the unconscious mind play tennis or simply sit and watch because you are only a spectator at a championship match. And, tracing it all the way back, this elaborate cortical structure still serves the primitive function of allowing all the cells of the body to communicate with each other.

Nature has given us a special freedom. We are not bound to simply respond to immediate life situations, as are the lower animals. Freed of these patterns, we can transcend time and respond to events as they occur, to events that have already occurred, or to those that have not. For example, a soldier may reproduce feelings experienced in last weeks battle or may experience feelings related to what he imagines will happen when he is shipped home next week. In the first case he will likely feel fear and anguish and, in the second, he will likely feel happiness. Either reaction could take place as he lies in his sleeping bag at three in the morning. Similarly, we may take the knowledge we possess at this moment and project onto a future situation, thereby planning our response, a procedure well known to any good quarterback. Furthermore, we can project into
the past, recall how we handled a given situation, and make a decision to handle similar situations in the future in the same or in c different way. In other words, we can use conscious feedback to help us make decisions.

In the following chapters we will focus on the aspect of conscious imagination that I call Selective Awareness-the process of focusing on certain thoughts and taking the focus away from others, temporarily, in order to use the brain and nervous system more effectively. The techniques for accomplishing this grew out of the synthesis of many objective scientific disciplines, including mathematics and computer theory, cybernetics, psychiatry, behavioral psychology, and many subfields of Western medicine. The findings and conclusions of these objective sciences are used to bring the mind-body complex into internal harmony through the use of subjective self-observation and self-regulation methods derived from medical hypnosis, autogenic training, biofeedback, and meditation techniques.

The ultimate goal of this work is to place you in control of your self to the degree that you choose and are motivated to achieve I hope that in learning to eliminate maladaptive symptoms, emotions, and habits, my readers, students, clients, patients, and friend’ will further develop access to that internal guidance system that through guiding the evolution of life, has transformed a harsh terrestrial wasteland into a planet of luxuriant greenery, supporting an almost limitless variety of flying, walking, and swimming creatures. But for the belief that such an internal guidance system still remains beneath the confusion in each of us, this book would never have been written. Perhaps it will, in some small way, help to create an inner awareness commensurate with the achievements oftwentieth-century technological science; an awareness that might stem humanity’s blind, headlong, inhuman rush toward an unthinkable nothingness.

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Written by Emmett Miller MD

Explore Wellness in 2021