No mumbo jumbo: The mind-body connection built into your brain

Over the past several years medical experts have begun to accept the idea that there is some connection between the physical body and emotional experiences, including positive and negative thoughts.

Mental stress, for instance, has been linked to an increased risk of chronic health conditions. It can also promote inflammation and shift your metabolism in ways that make it more difficult to lose weight and manage blood sugar.

This relationship is often referred to as the mind-body connection. But it’s long been regarded as an abstract, intangible link. Some have even called it mumbo jumbo — until now…

That’s because the literal link between body and mind has been mapped in the very structure of the brain…

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A physical link between body and mind

Researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis weren’t looking to advance theories on the mind-body connection. They were simply seeking to verify a 1930s-era map of the areas of the brain that control movement, using modern functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

But they discovered something odd when they examined the collected fMRI data…

The new imaging confirmed that control of the feet, hands and face were in the spots identified in the original map. However, interspersed with those key areas were three additional regions in the brain’s motor area that did not seem to be directly involved in movement at all.

These three regions were also thinner than the original movement areas. And they were strongly connected to each other, and to other parts of the brain involved in thinking, planning, mental arousal, pain and control of internal organs and functions such as blood pressure and heart rate.

When analyzing these new regions further, the researchers found that while they did not become active during movement, they were activated when the person thought about moving.

What this shows is that the link between body and mind is more than abstract — it’s embedded in the very structure of our brains and expressed in our physiology and movements as well as our behavior and thinking.

According to senior author Dr. Nico Dosenbach, a professor of neurology at Washington University School of Medicine, the connections make sense when considering what the brain is really for.

“The brain is for successfully behaving in the environment so you can achieve your goals without hurting or killing yourself,” Dosenback says. “You move your body for a reason. Of course, the motor areas must be connected to executive function and control of basic bodily processes, like blood pressure and pain. Pain is the most powerful feedback, right? You do something, and it hurts, and you think, ‘I’m not doing that again.’”

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Proof of the impact of the mind-body connection

Dosenbach and first author Dr. Evan M. Gordon, an assistant professor of radiology at the Washington University School of Medicine’s Mallinckrodt Institute of Radiology, have named this newly identified nexus the Somato-Cognitive Action Network, or SCAN.

SCAN could explain phenomena such as why anxiety makes some of us want to pace back and forth, why stimulating the vagus nerve that regulates internal organ functions may relieve depression and why people who exercise regularly have a more positive outlook.

“People who meditate say that by calming your body with, say, breathing exercises, you also calm your mind,” Gordon says. “Those sorts of practices can be really helpful for people with anxiety, for example, but so far, there hasn’t been much scientific evidence for how it works. But now we’ve found a connection. We’ve found the place where the highly active, goal-oriented ‘go, go, go’ part of your mind connects to the parts of the brain that control breathing and heart rate. If you calm one down, it absolutely should have feedback effects on the other.”

This study is further confirmation that mindfulness practices like yoga, tai chi, meditation and mindful breathing have a positive physical effect on your body’s processes. If you already engage in one or more of those activities, it’s probably no surprise to you. But if you don’t, this evidence is all the more reason to give mindfulness a try.

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Mind-body connection is built into brain, study suggests — Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis

A somato-cognitive action network alternates with effector regions in motor cortex — Nature

Carolyn Gretton

By Carolyn Gretton

Carolyn Gretton is a freelance writer based in New Haven, CT who specializes in all aspects of health and wellness and is passionate about discovering the latest health breakthroughs and sharing them with others. She has worked with a wide range of companies in the alternative health space and has written for online and print publications like Dow Jones Newswires and the Philadelphia Inquirer.