A Historical Overview of the Mind-Body Concept in the Medical Profession (ca. 1800-present)

March 2000.


Spirituality and religion play important roles in peoples’ lives.  Due to social interactions coupled with mind-body relations, the human behavior attached to the spiritual and religious lifestyle provide unique benefits to the participants.  When viewed at an individual level, spirituality plays a dominant role throughout much of the human experience, with or without any religious involvement.  When viewed at a social level, spirituality and religion are more integrated with each other.  Studies in recent years have shown that this integration of religion with an individual lifestyle has beneficial long term effects on promoting well-being.  In situations where health is at risk, spiritual and religious behaviors can have curative effects due to various personal, social, cultural and philosophical reasons.  

Individuals who believe in a monistic philosophy interpret the Universe as an entity in which matter and energy are fully interchangeable.  Opposing this conception of reality is the dualistic philosophy of existence in which the Universe is defined as an entity which has two different types of existence—physical (i.e. matter) and spiritual (i.e. energetic). Although interchangeable to some extent, each of these realms are felt to behave according to different constructs of reality or paradigms, and as a consequence of this, behave according to different laws.  Such reasoning has typically been used to define the reasons for otherwise inexplicable healings induced by spiritualism and religion.

Throughout much of the twentieth century, the dualist’s model has prevailed in the professional medical community, with the focus mostly on the physical realm.  As part of this perception of reality, Natural (or in a more modern sense, Scientific) Law dominates in much of what is seen and experienced by the healer.  The second law of dualism, Divine Law, is viewed as distinct and typically not influential.  For the most materialistic of people (i.e.  scientists), no “Divine” Law (God-related or Absolute) is felt to exist, or at least in some dominant, active form.   Individuals who cannot accept Divine Law as being possible are often termed atheist.  The related agnostics accept Natural Law, but to some extent, accept the notion that other laws could exist which have some unexplainable supernatural (Divine or God-related) origin and purpose.

The monistic model accepts the notion that one set of laws controls and dominates all that exists.  Believers in monism accept the notion that this set of laws can operate at both the physical and metaphysical levels and that while operating at each of these levels, the resulting actions are highly interchangeable, converting from one form of energy and/or matter to the next.  People who live externally at the physical level (i.e. at work) but at a more personal level (i.e. at home and in specific social setting) might base the bulk of their survival skills on a more integrative, metaphysical level of existence.  

In theory, neither the monistic and dualistic models of existence have any benefits over the other.  Transpersonal psychology teachings promote both of these models for interpreting the Universe (Harman 1998).  The primary emphasis however is remaining open to possibilities and changes in thinking, and remaining detached from some of the more traditional atheistic and solely materialist interpretation of the universe.  The long term benefits of such thinking are felt to include healthier living in numerous ways, ranging from maintaining control of one’s life and goals, to being able to successfully matriculate one’s Self into various other cultural settings.  The combined teachings of spirituality, religion and medicine represent one example of this approach to health and well-being.  As the history of medicine illustrates, the medical profession as a whole has had a difficult time explaining healings and cures based on the traditional allopathic paradigm.  Attempts to explain these cures have led to the development of psychological thinking and psychology, a better understanding of the various mind-body relations, and the increasing problem of being able to recognize and distinguish between physical and metaphysical cures, or what some healers have come to call the differences between physical healing and spiritual healing. 



The religious philosophical definitions for dualism and monism play an important role in the development of the current split between religion and medicine, coupled with the development of the modern mindbody concept.  Therefore, in medicine as well as religion, the separation of the mind from the body is a direct result of the development of a dualistic interpretation of the body, a philosophical view of life initiated by Descartes during the seventeenth century (Malcolm 1971, Damasio 1994). 

The use of “mind-body” as acceptable medical terminology in medicine is preceded by early psychological theories which ascribe certain diseases to emotional causes.  The development of contemporary mindbody arguments therefore has much to do with how medical professional separated themselves from adherents to the monistic interpretation of the world, to become avid supporters of the more materialist interpretation of the world based on a dualistic model, in which the physical world became the chief focus of study.   A number of early medical articles exist documenting this change in medical thinking during the nineteenth century.  To understand the relationship of medicine to religion, this review of some of these articles demonstrates how a reduction of the roles played by religion in medicine has ultimately helped sever the ties which existed between physical healers (physicians) and spiritually-focused religious healers.  Only in recent years have members of these two professions begun to merge their disciplines once again, due either to the given social system or the development of a philosophy for religious healing (i.e. miracles) which matches some of the teachings in science used to define regular medical practice, in particular the quantum theory of physics (Carter and Narramore 1979, Forsthoefel 1994, Ashbrook and Albright 1997, Glynn 1997, Murphy 1997, Todaro-Franceschi 1999).     

The linking of nervous activity to muscular movement during the late eighteenth century formed the basis of some of the early sympathy-related arguments for why diseases may form due to pathological changes in the physical body induced by nervous activity.   By 1800, the most commonly accepted forms of nervous activity related to somatic change were 1) the nerve excitation-motor reaction response, 2) the effect of sympathetic nervous system (a series of nerves which descended parallel to the spinal column on the physical state of the human body, and the know effects of emotions and sympathetic nervous activity on vascular activity (especially the constriction-dilation response) and blood flow (Park 1818).  Due to these observations, one of the simpler views of the mind-body response had developed which stated that some disease could be interpreted as the result of detrimental human emotional responses brought on by a behavior of excitement in response to given local physical and social (behavioral) conditions known as “passions.”

Passion was viewed as an intense emotional response brought on by a combination of nervous and mental states, followed by changes in the body.  Some of the earliest examples of these theorized links between emotions, “nervous influences” and human physiology came from studies which focused on the digestive and respiratory systems.  By the 1830s, this philosophy became well-defined as it was used to argue psychological cause for diseases like asthma, dyspepsia and heart attack (Allyn, 1839; Forbes, 1839). An early association of this type of response to religious behavior was noted by Forbes, who blamed “exhilarating passions” for the diseases and fatigue suffered by members of religious certain groups.  

Accompanying this human emotion-related interpretation of disease was the implication that an early form of hypnosis (mesmerism) could be related to curing.  The promotion of hypnotism in the United States began in 1836 by Charles Poyen (Larson 1985).  This was followed in the 1840s by James Braid’s book Neurohypnology (London 1843), in which the powers of hypnosis were related to nervous system activity.  Just a few years later, this activity of the mind retained its dualistic interpretation of being distinct from the body.  As a result, Ochorowicz’s The Power of the Mind over the Body (London 1846) was published and the terms mind and body and their relationship with each other became the focus of certain healing practices (see also Tuckey 1888). 

Fifteen years later, this link between emotion (in particular love) and religion was better defined for the medical literature by  Dendy, who tried to explain religiously-induced cures as due to “the remedial powers of the mind” (Dendy, 1853).  He defined the mind-body effect as a results of three steps: 1) the influence of the joy attached to this spirituality, 2) the effects of such an emotion on nervous activity, and 3) the value of “true love” as an antidote to passion.   Dendy’s interpretation of the benefits of religion on one’s emotional state on disease (true love vs. passion) supported claims that there might be a use for religion in providing medical treatment to specific people.  A few years later, further support for this notion was defined by Mercier (1857, 87), who claimed an unhealthy environment and certain emotions or “troubles of the mind” could cause disease.  Mercier used this reasoning to ascribe reasons for unexplainable cures to some “mysterious” metaphysical cause, rather than simply the actions taken by a physician on the patient.

The growing knowledge of human anatomy and physiology further strengthened professional medical arguments which claimed that Natural Law rather than Divine Law could be the cause for all miraculous cures.  By the 1870s, the “natural recuperative process” was one of the more popularly recognized causes for cures which doctors made use of.  This argument was especially attractive to physicians unable to understand the “cures” being witnessed by practitioners of mesmerism, galvanic therapy and even the various patent medicines (Webber 1876).  Due to this acceptance of natural recuperative process as a means for unexpected cures, “Divine favor” and the supernatural were denounced by physicians as metaphysical perceptions of these events which were merely misinterpretations.   However, about this same time, British physician Simpson recognized a dualistic interpretation of the mind-body cure which accepted both nature and “the wisdom and power of its Creator” as important healing agents.  Simpson distinguished the “powers of the mind” from the activities of “the body in which it dwells” (Simpson 1878).  With this theory, Simpson argued that both imagination and emotion could exert important influences on the development of disease induced by mental influence.  He was not as accepting for the existence of a possible relationship between these powers of the mind and some of the more physical diseases of the body.

The mention of any relationship between mindbody medical theory, faith and religion wasn’t popular until the late nineteenth century.  Gorton defined  “Faith cures”  as “cures of disease by invocations or prayers” which ensue as a result of a “mental act” in which the healer directs a mental force (i.e. through hypnosis) to a strongly believing patient (Gorton 1883).  Nevertheless, this recognition of the possible use of the mind-body connection as a means for cure through prayer was rarely noted by physicians in the medical journals.  

During these same years, another physician, Mitchell, proposed a combined somatic and psychic interpretation for disease.  By accepting explanations for cure based on hypnotic, neuromotor, psycho-sensory, mind/emotion-nerve and “vital force” (by then a centuries old concept), he was able to argue extensively about how such a healing process might be initiated (Mitchell 1885).  A year later, Mitchell linked specific types of cures to “mind transformation,” in which a change in mindset affects the body and thereby results in a new set of behaviors (and new potentials), such as automatic writing.  This argument relied heavily upon physiological causality features, in turn leading Mitchell to define a specific class of disease conditions related to the “psycho-motor or psycho-inhibitory force” (Mitchell, 1886, 405).  By relying upon neuromotor (nerve-muscle) and vasomotor (vessel constriction/dilation) influences, he could explain such cures as the miracles of Lourdes, France (through water temperature-induced blood or vessel change for example).  

Mitchell’s psycho-motor concept was defined in more detail the same year by Probst (1886).  Probst’s interpretation of the psycho-motor concept is important because it links human imagination to cures.  In turn, by emphasizing imagination as a chief curative agent, Probst’s work enabled concepts about the roles of visualization and imagery in inducing a “cure by imagination.” Such a categorization of responses serves as a precursor to some of the more modern visual imagery curing practices practiced today. 

During the late 1890s, the recurrence of healings linked to phenomena like hypnosis and imagination led to the proposition of “Theory of Belief” (Parker 1897).  Various psychological and neurological activities related to the development of belief were then used to explain how and why cures may be initiated by the acceptance of various belief systems, including religion.  Parker noted that in order for a belief system to develop, an individual must go through several distinct developmental stages:  stimulation, excitement, repetition, growing familiarity, mental acquiescence, and imagination.  He suggested that the imagination process allowed for an extrapolation of known features to take place, which in turn enabled the individual to produce his or her “miracle” by attaching certain mental and emotional components to this healing process.  Parker considered this development of faith and faith-related healings (miracles) to evolutionary in nature and essential for human survival.  His primary reason:

“The forces that we call life make for belief.  We all want to believe. . . . So long as belief remains an active function, and so long as life remains a bundle of functions united to delight in their activity, we shall have a healthy desire to believe rather than to doubt.”

By the end of the nineteenth century, numerous psychological theories began to surface to explain unusual cures based on the role of the conscious and sub-conscious mind in the curing process (Schofield 1902).  It was speculated that the subconscious mind could activate the sympathetic system, in turn causing some of the cures noted in people.  This argument very quickly became one focused more on psychologically-induced diseases, in which the emotional circuits within the brain in relation to the sympathetic could result not only in the cure itself, but also the attached spiritual or emotional response typical of the more religious and “mystical” cures (Bradley 1906).  As a result of this reasoning, psychotherapy became a more stable adjunct to the medical profession, with a significant part of its practice focused on the “faith healing” concept (Harrington 1909).

Much of medicine, psychology and religion further developed their hypothesis for cures and disease prevention during the early twentieth century.  By the mid-twentieth century, psychosomatic medicine had become well-defined, and a journal by the same name began into publication (Weiss and English 1943; Slaughter 1947, Seguin 1950).  By then, various models for how a cure for a disease had been published, many focused on the psychosomatic model and its various modifications based on the identification of additional neural paths linked to similar effects (Selye 1964, Cheren 1989). 

Many of the more contemporary biomedical theories focus on the stress-related model produced by Selye.  However, a number of sociological theories for cure have been proposed, focusing on the role of social support and equality in an individual’s psychology and living stress (Rossi 1986).  Matching this holistic interpretation of disease is an evolutionary theory in which “hard-wired” belief systems are used to explain the cause (Benson 1996).  Also quite recently, the psychoneuroimmunological theory has been argued, in which neural tissue structure activity combined with blood chemistry features like white blood cell response and hormonal secretion cause the cure (Locke and Colligan 1986, Dantzer 1993).   

The various biomedical models for disease cure have several metaphysical theories combining a number of concepts in energy and matter deduced mostly through physics research.  These physically-based energy theories have matching energy theories, some involving well-documented forms of energy like electricity and magnetism and other others based on less-documented energy fields like the kundalini (Elder 1997), Oriental chi (Unschuld 1985), and the possibility of the victim taking a “quantum leap” to another dimension of time (Bonnet 1996). 

Such philosophies pertaining to spirituality and religion identify several underlying components of the healing domain (the patient-healer space), each of which may be defined based on a variety of physical and metaphysical concepts attached to these domains or spheres of knowledge akin to the Natural and Divine knowledge dualistic theory.  Some of these philosophies include just the patient and healer in such a space, with an indwelling energy in both that helps define the healing event.  Most philosophies however recognize an extrasomatic (outside the body) energy source, such as one or more Universal energy sources like light, sound, prana, etc.  Those with theosophical undertones recognize this energy as possibly that of God or the Creator, a Power which may be interpreted as indwelling (i.e. the God within) or Universal and/or extracorporeal (dwelling within as well as without).   



Based on these methods of interpreting the healing process and the types of [people involved, several popular theories have been proposed to explain the mechanisms by which a healing activity atypical to regular physical (versus metaphysical) medicine takes place.  These are the common arguments used by physicians’ and metaphysicians’ alike to explain healing by prayer, “miraculous healings” and numerous other religious-based cures: 

The Ritual-Placebo/Psychosocial theory:  the disease exists due primarily to the patient’s mental and cognitive state or belief system; stress-induced changes in the body facilitate disease onset and progression; since the disease is of a personal psychological origin, personally, socially and culturally defined interactions (rituals) are largely responsible for the healing process. 

The Psychosomatic theory: the disease exists due primarily to the patient’s mental and cognitive state or belief system; stress-induced changes in the body facilitate the disease onset and progression; prayer works due to patient’s thought processes and expectations related to this healing of the disease, in turn inducing a somatic (bodily) healing response through some sort of neurophysiological activity. 

The Psychoneuroimmunological theory: the disease exists as a physical and mental (including emotional) manifestation, but with underlying immune system features included in the bodily changes expected through the psychosomatic response; the healing occurs due not only to a reduction in the stressors, but also an activation or balancing of the immune system affected by this disease initiating process; prayer works because it impacts the emotion centers of the brain, in turn improving immune system activity.

The Subtle Energy/Quantum/psi-energy theory:  the disease exists as a physical and mental (including emotional) manifestation; regardless of the physical and mental (psychological, emotional) states associated with the disease and/or its cause (of physical or mental nature), healing energies may be produced, channeled or shared by a healer (“gifted healer”) or a group of people; these energies induce the healing response energetically, as well as mentally, emotionally and therefore spiritually.

The Supernatural, Creator or God Theory:  the disease exists for whatever reason (physical or metaphysical; as life’s test or not; for religious cause or not) and may exist due to any combination of physical, mental, emotional and spiritual manifestations (i.e. of demonic, pastlife, or other spirit influence); regardless of the physical and mental (psychological, emotional) states associated with the disease and/or its cause, healings (or betterment) may be produced physically, and even mentally and emotionally.  However, total or spiritual healing may require Universal Energy or Entity (Creator/God/ YHWH/Allah/Absolute/etc.) to be engaged in the healing practice.  This healing Entity may engage in this process by acting directly on the individual, by acting within the individual, or by way of engaging an intermediary person as the healer.  The belief that this energy is universal and can be tapped into defines the basis for the contemporary view of prayer-induced cures.  It is speculated that such cures are generated by way of the healer or individual connecting with this energy, a practice referred to as non-local prayer.



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