On Feeling Well: A Brief History of Wellness and the Brain

Did you know you might be living in the golden age of brain science? Our understanding of the human brain is expanding so rapidly that some scientists are calling it such. Yet, there is so much to discover that others liken the brain to a vast, unknown frontier. One thing is known for sure, though — to understand the brain is to understand ourselves.

But for much of human history, the brain was not held in such high regard. The ancient Egyptians, when preparing bodies for mummification, would discard the brain while preserving the organs deemed more important for one’s journey into the afterlife, like the heart, lungs, and liver. In some of the most ancient medical texts, the functions of the mind are usually assigned to the heart, not to the brain. The brain was dismissed as mere cranial stuffing.

Today, even primary school kids have some idea about the brain and its function — that it’s a gray, wrinkly thing we use to think. And few people would dismiss its importance. For us, to lose our brains’ functions is to lose ourselves, and we thus dread the thought of dementia or brain injury, placing these among the worst of all possible fates. We now know that the brain is not just important, but is the very mediator of wellness. The health of the body can no longer be separated from the health of the brain, and the health of the brain cannot be separated from the health of the body.

The transition of how we gradually came to view the brain so differently parallels the story of how people have related to health and wellness in general. Like so much else in human cultures, perceptions of what it means to be “healthy” have varied drastically throughout the past. Yet, these views can be generalized into two basic perspectives — holistic and mechanistic.

For much of human history, the conception of health has been holistic — focusing on the totality of the human being, rather than looking for the root cause of an illness within a particular organ or bodily function. In tribal societies, to this day, when someone is sick, no distinctions are made between body, mind, and spirit. An illness represents a disruption in the proper natural balance of things, and the individual is likely to be brought back into balance through the use of herbs, spiritual rituals, and energetic purification. Maintaining health, therefore, is a matter of understanding one’s relationship to the whole — to the whole of one’s tribe, to the whole of the earth, and to the whole of one’s own being. The mechanistic point of view, which rose to prominence in the Western world along with industrialism, perceives the body as a machine. Symptoms of diseases are singled out for direct treatment, and the causes underlying the disorders are assigned to malfunctioning processes in the body. This viewpoint, at least at first glance, seems the most scientific — isolating and quantifying everything according to its separate form and function.

For those of us growing up in the Western world, this viewpoint now seems normal, even “traditional.” Yet, the holistic view (the truly traditional one of the two) has persisted, leading to a kind of intellectual battle between those who advocate a holistic approach to health and those who prefer the mechanistic one. In the 20th century especially, attempts were made by the medical establishment — which advocates the management of symptoms through pharmaceuticals and other scientifically validated treatments — to limit the practice of more holistic approaches to health, such as naturopathy. In the 21st century, our health care professionals have arrived at something of an uncomfortable truce. Medical doctors admit to the value of chiropractic with varying degrees of enthusiasm and/or skepticism, while celebrity advocates of “alternative medicine,” like Dr. Andrew Weil and Dr. Mehmet Oz, receive only occasional derision from the American Medical Association.

Part of the reason for this reluctant acceptance is simple. We’re living in a small world these days. While a mechanistic view may continue to be the preferred Western approach, the lines between East and West are no longer as definite as they once were. What was 50 years ago part of the “far out” counterculture of the beatniks and hippies — yoga, chakra balancing, medicinal herbs, acupuncture, and the like — has become much more mainstream. In fact, the word “wellness,” which connotes a more holistic approach to human health, was not at all common in English usage before the 1950s. At that point, its use increased exponentially, right alongside the soaring interest in Eastern perspectives.

The Eastern take on medicine is essentially a highly developed, holistic view of human health. There are many variations of Eastern medicine in different Asian cultures, but they are all united by the idea of life energy, known as “qi.” This vital life energy is an invisible source of power that runs through our bodies and ties our health to our mind and spirit. As such, there is no concrete separation between mind, body, and soul. Rather than having been discovered through scientific inquiry, the Eastern traditional approach has evolved over thousands of years of observation, trial, and error. Science, however, has confirmed the efficacy of some of its practices, such as acupuncture along with certain Chinese medicinal herbs. They don’t know how all of it works, but they can’t deny that it is effective … at least some of the time.

But what does all of this have to do with the brain? Well, the brain is where holistic and mechanistic views converge. Since all other bodily functions are dependent on the brain, the brain is the single uniting organ — an individual part which is the ultimate unifier of all bodily processes, and the apparent seat of consciousness as well. Previously, Western scientists separated the mind from the body into the dualistic “Cartesian split.” But the study of the brain will not support such a false dichotomy. Without a shadow of a doubt, neuroscientists know that the mind influences the physical functioning of the brain and vice versa — they can see it right there on the CT scans. And what is the most basic functional element of the brain, the substance that jumps a million times from synapse to synapse every time we form a thought? That’s right … good old bioelectricity. There it is, energy — perhaps a confirmation of the qi life force running along a meridian system.

In discovering what is good for the brain, we are finding out what is good for the body and the spirit. In studying the effects of stress on the brain and body, for example, it has been impossible to separate the processes of our mind from the health of our bodies. And some of the best, scientifically confirmed remedies for our stressed-out brains and bodies have come straight from spiritual practices, as in the case of meditation and yoga, ones which have proven effective for treating issues like post-traumatic stress.

In the future, neuroscience will likely answer questions that we thought science could not answer, questions once thought better left to philosophers and gurus. What will we learn about ourselves in our quest for total wellness? When neuroscientists figure out what’s really going on between our synapses on the quantum level? What will science tell us about how these energies interact with the energies that physicists tell us our entire universe is made out of? Will the gurus be saying, “I told you so,” or will science tell a different story entirely? Only time will tell, and what exciting times those will be.

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