As you may know, the brain is an incredibly complicated organ. It controls all sorts of functions which we know about, and probably many more. It is a real challenge to discover things about the way the brain works, due to the degree of its complexity, as well as to the limitations of our equipment. It has been demonstrated over time that many things can influence the brain to perform various tasks, or behave in certain ways. One of the arguably most intriguing of these reactions involves the placebo effect. When a patient is given a pill and told that it may or may not be an actual drug, he or she may show effects resembling those of having taken the drug even if they are really just on the sugar pill. This is one of the most dramatic demonstrations of the brain’s ability to heal the body through mere belief and will to get better.
Scientists have had a history of ignoring the responses to the placebo effect, and have considered it a figment of patient’s imagination. However, it has been shown that using a placebo actually makes visible changes in brain chemistry. MRIs and PET scans for quite a number of patients on placebo treatments depicted an increase in the levels of dopamine in patients with Parkinson’s disease, and a decrease in high blood pressure and in the level of epileptic seizures. The body is essentially responding to a thought sequence in the brain.
Researchers at the University of California conducted a study involving victims of chronic pain. When hooked up to an EEG (electroencephalograph), the patient could see their brain producing the pain signals they were feeling as a wave. The study involved thinking about various different images, such as snowflakes, water, and people putting out fire. They found that when a certain pattern or type of thought was activated, pain levels actually decreased, with no drugs influencing the brain. Patients have been able to control their chronic pain just by thinking about pleasant things. You may think this is a little far-fetched, but you yourself do the exact same thing in certain situations.
How many times have you escaped to your “happy place” and felt better about yourself? Why do you listen to music? The thoughts associated with these activities actually result in changes in brain and body chemistry. A good song will make you feel good, because endorphins are released into the brain. Your boss yells at you, and 5 minutes later you find yourself in Hawaii soaking up sun, while sipping a piña colada, and then you feel better. These are real physical responses to changes in brain activity. If your body responds to the thoughts concerning physical survival, why wouldn’t it respond to thoughts concerning bodily functions?
Another great example is the ‘fight or flight’ response. Your body reacts to certain situations which you see and subsequently contemplate . Let’s say a big guy is walking towards you, holding a knife. Your brain recognizes that this guy may want to kill you, because you have seen too many Hollywood movies, and your imagination causes you to think that people want you dead. Regardless of the reason, this thought sequence kicks your adrenal glands into action, and they start to release adrenaline. Your pupils dilate, your muscles tense, and your brain is fully ready for anything that may happen. This is a response to the observed situation; you see a man with a knife walking towards you. You are immediately alert and attentive. Of course, you may try to fight this guy, hope he does not kill you, or run away and call the cops. You are able to do these things better because your body is “prepped” by your mind. This is a survival mechanism which depends on the thoughts running through your mind.
The subconscious is a particularly interesting area of study in science, with a future full of prospects. Hopefully, there can be a time when there will be viable therapies involving brain activity.