Reprinted with permission from "Shaman, Healer, Sage: How to Heal Yourself and Others with the Energy Medicine of the Americas" published by Harmony Books, a division of Random House.
I entered a career in medical anthropology with a fascination for the human mind. In the 1980s I spent hundreds of hours in anatomy laboratories. I wanted to know how the mind could influence the body to create either health or disease. At that time I had little interest in spirituality, whether of the traditional or New Age variety. I was convinced that science was the only reliable method for acquiring knowledge.
One day at the University of California I was slicing brain tissue, preparing slides to examine under the microscope. The human brain is the most bewildering organ in the body. Its crevasses make it resemble a three-pound walnut. These valleys and convolutions were the only way nature could accommodate a thin but extensive layer of neocortex (the word means "new brain") into our heads without increasing the size of our skull. Human evolution had already run into an anatomically insurmountable obstacle: The pelvic girdle could not tolerate passing a larger head through the birth canal.
Under the microscope one can observe the millions of synapses that weave every brain cell with its neighbors into an extraordinary network of living fibers. These neural networks transmit vast amounts of motor and sensory data. Yet the fascination with the brain is uniquely Western. The Egyptians had very little use for it, liquefying it after death and siphoning it off, even though the rest of the body's organs were mummified.
The question we had been debating that day at the lab was whether the human mind was confined to the brain, or even to the body, for that matter. I knew that if the brain were simple enough for us to understand it, we
would be so simple that we couldn't. Yet no matter how meticulously we examined slides of the brain, the mind kept eluding us. The more I learned about the brain, the more confounded I became about the mind.
I believed that the human race had managed to survive for a million years before the arrival of modern medicine because the body-mind knew the pathways to health. We survived cuts that became infected, and bones broken from falling down a ravine on the way to the watering hole. Until 50 years ago, going to a doctor was more dangerous to your health than staying home and letting your body-mind take its own course.<>
By the early part of the 20th century, medicine excelled only in the area of diagnosis. It still lacked the curative techniques, effective drugs, and surgical interventions that would not be developed until around the time of World War II. For example, penicillin, the first practical antibiotic, did not come into use until 1940. Given the dismal state of medicine until the mid-1900s, how did your ancestors manage to remain healthy for so many thousands of years? Did indigenous societies know something we did not about mind and body, something very ancient that we had forgotten and were now trying to rediscover in the laboratory?
The concept of psychosomatic illness is now well established, but it originally was associated with hypochondria--"it's all in your head." The very real effects of the mind on the body have been confirmed by research. In a sense we all became experts at developing psychosomatic disease very early in life. At the age of six I could create the symptoms of a cold in minutes if I did not want to go to school. Psychosomatic disease goes against every survival instinct programmed into the body by 300 million years of evolution. How powerful the mind must be to override all of these survival and self-preservation mechanisms. Imagine if we could marshal these resources to create psychosomatic health!
In the last few decades the field of psychoneuroimmunology (PNI) was born. PNI investigators discovered that the mind is not localized in the brain but rather is generalized throughout the body. Dr. Candace Pert found that neuropeptides, which are molecules that continually wash through our bloodstream, flooding the spaces in between each cell, respond almost instantaneously to every feeling, mood, and emotion, effectively turning the entire body into vibrant, pulsing "mind." Our body as a whole experiences every feeling we have. The rift between mind and body had been resolved with the discovery of a single molecule. We also discovered how psychosomatic disease works. We know that when we become depressed every cell in our body feels it, our immune defenses are lowered, and we are more likely to become ill. We know that laughter, if not the best medicine, is near the top of the list. Years after I left the laboratory, PNI investigators discovered what shamans have long known, that the mind and the body are one. But investigators missed one element that is the crux of all shamanic healing: the Spirit.