MIND BOGGLING; Scientists Have Proved You Can Learn to Beat Pain by Harnessing the Hidden Forces of Your Mind. but Could Sheer Brainpower Defeat Diseases as Well?

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THE power of the mind over the body is one of the more remarkable aspects of human existence.

Until recently, this phenomenon was dismissed as nothing more than mysticism by sceptical Western scientists.

But now, science is providing clinical evidence that the mind can indeed have an influence on bodily functions.

An experiment at Stanford University, California, has shown that patients in chronic pain can use mental exercises to reduce their physical suffering.

Through a technique known as neurofeedback, eight patients have learnt how to manipulate their brains' activities to alleviate pain.

Of the eight taking part in the test, five said that their pain was reduced by 50 per cent or more.

This is the first time that neurofeedback has proved so effective in combating pain, though the technique has been used successfully in other medical applications.

Neurofeedback is one branch of the wider system of biofeedback, which involves showing patients scanned images of their bodily functions, and then encouraging them to alter those functions by rethinking them.

SO FAR, people vulnerable to heart-attacks have been taught how to slow down their heart rate, and people suffering from stress have been taught how to reduce their blood pressure.

At Stanford University, MRI scans of the brain are being used to teach people how to modulate the symptoms of pain, and as they conduct their mental exercises, the patients can actually see the electrical activity inside their brains change.

As a scientist, I have always been fascinated by the way the body could be controlled by thought processes.

That fascination began when, as a child, I looked in a medical textbook and learnt about a man who had undergone surgery on an inflamed appendix, yet had taken no anaesthetic for it. Instead, the operation had been conducted through hypnosis.

Later I conducted my own experiments in mind control.

I hypnotised a group of patients who had expressed a deep dislike of onions and under hypnosis I told them that a plate of onions in front of them was actually a plate of apples.

All their innate repugnance disappeared and I saw then how powerful the mind could be.

Although the technology used to prove it at Stanford may be highly advanced, the idea behind the mind controlling the body has been known since the beginnings of civilisation.

The Ancient Greek philosopher Hippocrates - the founding father of medicine - recognised how important moral and spiritual considerations were in the process of healing more than 2,000 years ago. And the connection between mind and body has always lain at the heart of Chinese medicine.

Only in modern Western medicine has an artificial separation been imposed between the mind and the body.

Medieval Christianity appreciated the relation between mind and body, but that view disappeared with the Scientific Enlightenment in the 17th century.

It was then that medicine began to concentrate entirely on the body.

In an age without anaesthetics, surgery was agonising and often fatal. But in the 19th century Dr John Elliotson and his protege James Esdaile claimed that by hypnotising their patients, they could not only make pain disappear but could also reduce the death rate from the average of 40per cent to just 5 per cent. …