Three engineering students were talking about what kind of God designed the human body.  The first said, ‘God must be a mechanical engineer.  Look at all those joints’.  The second said, ‘No, God’s an electrical engineer.  The central nervous system has a huge number of electrical connections’.  The third said, ‘Nonsense, God’s a civil engineer.  Who else would run a toxic waste pipe through a recreational area?’

That joke appears in a philosophy book called ‘Plato and a Platypus walk into a bar’.  So it’s a philosophical joke about the body.  And one of philosophy’s biggest challenges concerns the body or more precisely the body’s relationship with the mind.  What is that relationship? What’s the relationship between the mental and the physical?  Are they completely separate or are they actually the same thing?

Illness and your mind

All this leaps from the library into your lap when you get ill.  Is there ‘just’ a physical cause or could an underlying psychological factor be at work?  We’re all aware how the mind can affect the body.  We get anxious and we start to sweat and our heart begins to pound and so on.   But what if we’ve got irritable bowel syndrome?  Is it just physical or is our mind influencing things somewhere?

I have no answers to these questions but I do think the questions are worth asking.  And, as a psychotherapist, I also think my profession comes across some interesting phenomena that suggest a profound connection between the mental and the physical and maybe even a unity in them.

Buried problems coming out in the body

As usual, Freud was early on the scene.  He saw patients whose bodies were  displaying strange symptoms while having nothing wrong with them.  He found that the symptoms would quite often disappear if a hidden emotional tangle in the patient could be resolved.  A person with a paralysed hand might, for example, have strong unconscious aggressive feelings and a desire to punch some major figure in their past while (again unconsciously) detesting such urges because it’s not done in polite society to deck your grandfather.  If all this could be brought into conscious awareness the use of the hand might be restored.

Around the same time pioneering British psychiatrist Henry Maudsley said that ‘the sorrow which has no vent in tears may make other organs weep’.   Both Freud and Maudsley were noticing that if we can’t find words for feelings or if feelings are too unbearable they may come out elsewhere – in the body.

A range of disorders

Psychotherapist Peter Shoenberg has made this area – called psychosomatics – a speciality.  He believes that unconscious dynamics may at least have a part to play in a range of contemporary disorders.  These may include conversion hysteria of the type Freud encountered (still around today though probably less), hypochondria, chronic fatigue syndrome, irritable bowel syndrome, some eating disorders, headaches, inflammatory bowel disease, bronchial asthma, obesity, some skin disorders and some cardiovascular disorders.

Shoenberg is cautious in his observations about mental influences in illness.  In his book ‘Psychosomatics’, he writes that ‘psychological factors are rarely the sole or even the dominant ones …. [They] are often only one of a group of many other factors including genetic, immune and environmental factors (eg infections) and, as yet unknown, physical factors leading to the onset and maintenance of a condition.’   That said, he sees a role for psychotherapy in improving some physical ailments because of its task of helping a person to get in touch with trapped and buried feelings.

Shoenberg’s stance would be echoed by American psychoanalyst Charles Hogan.  Writing of his work with patients suffering from inflammatory bowel disease, Hogan even goes so far as to say, ‘It is apparent that with the successful treatment of the subjective unconscious conflicts we are repeatedly able to obtain reversals in the parallel physical symptomatology’.

On the threshold

There’s nothing simple about any of this. And understanding the relationship between the mind and the body is still in its infancy.  It’s a subject that needs to be approached with humility.  Nevertheless, you get the feeling that we’re on the threshold of some exciting – and potentially amazing – discoveries.

In the meantime, you know that ache you’ve just developed?  It might be worth asking who or what’s a pain in your neck.