The mind can control the body: Body sensations found to be controlled by psychological stimuli more often than physical stimuli
-by Edsel Cook
The old adage of “mind over matter” is true, according to the results of a Hungarian study. Their findings proposed that most attention-related body sensations take their cues from psychological stimuli from the central nervous system (CNS) rather than from the peripheral nervous system (PNS.)
The researchers reported that cognitive processes are responsible for body sensations such as numbness, pulse, tingling, and warmth. So, anything that adjusts one’s state of mind – such as meditative contemplation or mindful practices – can also alter these common sensations that were formerly attributed to autonomic processes.
Researchers from ELTE Eötvös Loránd University in Hungary conducted the groundbreaking study. They published their results in Physiology International in 2017. (Related: Don’t sweat the exam: Another study confirms mindfulness reduces stress.)
The mind controls attention-driven body sensations
The study began by noting the importance of attention-driven body sensations during subjective evaluations of a person’s physical health. During the course of a diagnosis, health professionals often ask their patients if they feel sensations such as tingling and warmth in their bodies.
These sensations appear to be affected by developments in the peripheral nervous system – the nerves that connect the CNS with the rest of the body – and the somatic nervous system, which controls the skeletal muscles responsible for voluntary movement of the body.
However, body sensations are also linked to mental processes such as attention and emotions. They are known to manifest if a body part receives sufficient attention.
The researchers decided to find what exactly exerted a greater effect on attention-driven body sensations: Autonomic and somatomotor physiological processes, or the psychological traits attributed to the cognitive processes of the brain.
The study did not find any close connection between most attention-related body sensations and physiological changes related to automatic body movements. The sensation of warmth was the sole exception, as researchers traced its origin to the relaxation of formerly-tense muscles.
Instead, they found a sizable correlation between overall intensity of the tingling sensation and body awareness, a person’s internal perception of the location of his or her body. Body awareness lets people direct and move themselves through their environments, and tingling is apparently connected to this.
Researchers also found a similarly-sized correlation with mind-and-body practices such as meditation, relaxation techniques, and yoga that encourage conscious change in one’s thought processes. Meditation, in particular, encourages a process called gyrification, where the outer layer of the brain develops more folds that seem to increase its ability to process information.
In sum, the researchers concluded that attention-driven body sensations respond more often to top-down functions associated with the central nervous system rather than peripheral nervous processes responsible for autonomic and external processes.
Possible validation of body-mind practices
The researchers believed their research opened the door for further investigations into the full extent of the deep relationship between the conscious mind and body.
For example, the strong connection between cognitive process and body sensations suggests the soundness of body-mind practices. These myriad practices emphasize harmonious interactions between the brain, mind, body, and behavior to enhance the practitioner’s mental health and emotional state.
One way to refine control of attention-related body sensations is through meditation. A 2012 study funded by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health(NCCIH) believed regular meditation can encourage activity in the amygdala, the part of the brain that handles emotions.
Emotions also happen to be one of the mental processes strongly connected with body sensations. Increasing emotional control would logically lead to a better grasp of emotion-related body sensations, which could lead to better direct control of those sensations.