A Perception Theory in Mind-Body Medicine: Guided Imagery and Mindful Meditation as Cross-Modal Adaptation

Article excerpt

Abstract A new theory of mind-body interaction in healing is proposed based on considerations from the field of perception. It is suggested that the combined effect of visual imagery and mindful meditation on physical healing is simply another example of cross-modal adaptation in perception, much like adaptation to prism-displaced vision. It is argued that psychological interventions produce a conflict between the perceptualmodalities of the immune system and vision (or touch), which leads to change in the immune system in order to realign the modalities. It is argued that mind-body interactions do not exist because of higher-order cognitive thoughts or beliefs influencing the body, but instead result from ordinary interactions between lower-level perceptual modalities that function to detect when sensory systems have made an error. The theory helps explain why certain illnesses may be more amenable to mind-body interaction, such as autoimmune conditions in which a sensory system (the immune system) has made an error. It also renders sensible erroneous changes, such as those brought about by "faith healers," as conflicts between modalities that are resolved in favor of the wrong modality. The present view provides one of very few psychological theories of how guided imagery and mindfulness meditation bring about positive physical change. Also discussed are issues of self versus non-self, pain, cancer, body schema, attention, consciousness, and, importantly, developing the concept that the immune system is a rightful perceptual modality. Recognizing mind-body healing as perceptual cross-modal adaptation implies that a century of cross-modal perception research is applicable to the immune system.

Keywords Psychoneuroimmunology . Guided imagery . Health . Cognition . Mindfulness meditation . Cross-modal perception . Mind-body . Perception . Prism adaptation . Visual imagery


In this article, a novel perception-based theory of mind-body interactions is suggested. The idea that the mindmay influence the body has long been intriguing to psychology, philosophy, religion, medicine, neurobiology, and popular culture. The placebo effect has been used by physicians for centuries (A. K. Shapiro, 1959), and faith healers are as old as organized religion itself (Porterfield, 2005). They both reflect the longheld idea that mere thought may bring about positive physical change. In psychology, contemporaries of Pavlov demonstrated more than 80 years ago that the immune system can be conditioned (see Hull, 1934; Spector, 2011). Pairing a neutral stimulus, such as a scratch on the skin, repeatedly with a substance that causes an increase in white blood cells, such as the injection of bacteria, led to the neutral stimulus by itself eliciting a large increase in white blood cells. Thus, the same Pavlovian learning process by which a tone can elicit fear if paired with shock or salivary anticipation if it precedes food can also produce an immune system response inside the body. The finding was an early lab demonstration that a psychological process, albeit not a higher-order cognitive one, can affect a physical process.

However, it is only recently that mainstream science and medicine have taken an interest in the influences of mind on health. Mention that the immune system could be conditioned appeared in early texts (Hilgard & Marquis, 1940) but was omitted in later editions. It was seemingly forgotten entirely in some literatures when it was reportedly first "discovered" decades later (Ader & Cohen, 1975), but with its import now recognized. In addition, accumulating findings on the relation between psychological states and disease were being documented in animals and humans. Stress in rats led to more infectious disease (Rasmussen, Marsh, & Brill, 1957). Stress caused by death of a spouse caused decline in immune functioning, later identified as natural killer cells, later shown to protect against viral disease and tumors (see Irwin, 2008). …