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The Healing Touch
by Sandra Blakeslee and Matthew Blakeslee
Imagine lying on a therapy table as a healer places her hand under the back of your neck. Her touch is gentle, calm, tranquil. She places her other hand lightly onto your left shoulder, then onto your right shoulder.
A sensation of tingling warmth ripples through your body. A nagging pain in your lower back begins to drain away. It's not vanquished, but it fades drastically. You relax under the spell of the healer's hands.
Or perhaps the healer doesn't even touch you. Instead she passes her hands about four inches above your body -- and you feel sensations that move and change in sync with her gestures.
How to explain this? According to most practitioners of therapeutic touch, the therapist is manipulating your body's energetic biofield. Disease or injury is obstructing your energy flows. The healer is using her hands to restore the integrity of this field, to normalize your flows, moving you back into wholeness and health.
Unfortunately, science has never been able to show that energetic biofields exist. No physical mechanism could ever be identified to account for the alleged efficacy of healing touch and similar treatments. An effect without a physical mechanism behind it is by definition supernatural - and invoking the supernatural is one of the fundamental no-no's of the scientific worldview.
And so the hard-nosed, white-lab-coated institution of Western medical science has largely chalked up such claims to gullibility, wishful thinking or, more charitably, a strong induction of the placebo effect.
But now new discoveries in brain science are bringing the skeptics back to the table for a fresh look. There is still no objective evidence for supernatural biofields. But there are tantalizing indications that healing touch and other forms of complementary and alternative medicine have real therapeutic value by dint of how the brain forges the mind-body connection. It has to do with how your brain senses the internal state of your body, a faculty called interoception ("intero-" as in "interior" and "-ception" as in "perception").
For decades the brain was viewed as a powerful computer that just happens to be made of living cells and just happens be encased in a skull and connected to a body via a set of input-output cables. But the brain-body relationship turns out to be far deeper and more subtle than that. The body and the brain exist by one another and for one another.
Your brain is in constant two-way communication with your body. For example, your internal organs - heart, lungs, liver, stomach, gut and all your various giblets - contain an array of special sensors that produce an ongoing readout of your body's internal status. These sensations register in a series of visceral maps in a brain region called the insula. When your heart beats faster or slower, the message is carried to the insula. When your breathing is shallow or labored, the signals go to your insula. When your gut feels good after a nourishing meal, or cranky from hunger or stress, the messages are sent to your insula.
And that's not all. Your skin contains several types of sensory receptors above and beyond conventional touch-sensing cells. Conventional touch signals get sent to your brain's primary touch map (called the somatosensory cortex), which is the fundamental part of your brain's voluntary-movement system. But the sensations of heat, cold, pain, itch, tickle, and sensual touch - the kind of light stroking you give to a baby or a lover - get sent to the insula, which is a fundamental part of your brain's motivation system.
The interoceptive circuit is finely tuned. Your brain-body system strives to keep itself in balance. If you're thirsty, you drink. If you're hungry, you eat. If you're overexerted, you rest. If you're understimulated, you grow restless. If you're cramped, you change positions or stretch. If your heart is racing, the insula sends signals back to your body to restore a normal rhythm.
The insula, it turns out, is your brain's grand central station for the massive flow of information about the state of your body. It gives you conscious access to how you feel moment to moment. Moreover, it uses these visceral feelings as the raw material for human social emotions - pride, humiliation, love, hate, guilt, atonement, rejection, and all the rest. This is a quintessential human ability. No other animal, not even our closest apely cousins, has as such a richly developed interoceptive circuit and complex emotional life.
Every brain imaging study of pain ever done - not just the literal pain of a pinch or a zap, but also the psychic pain of social rejection - activates the insula. When people react with disgust - not just to violent or repellent images, but also to moral disgust - their insulas light up. When heavy smokers suffer strokes in the insula, they wake up and "forget" to smoke ever again. Their cravings are extinguished.
Buddhist lamas, swamis, and other hardcore meditators have significantly thicker insulas than the rest of us. This cortical bulking-up is part and parcel of these masters' amazing control over their own autonomics states, their impressive powers of attention, and their highly stable, positive emotional frame of mind.
Normally - or at least, ideally - your insula hums along steadily throughout your day, keeping your body physiologically in balance and your mind feeling healthy, grounded and whole. But consider what happens when the system disequilibrates. What if stress, pain, anxiety or cravings well up from the body and overwhelm your equilibrium? What if the insula becomes hypersensitive, overreacting to minor physiological imbalances or discomforts that normally wouldn't register a blip on your psychic radar screen?
Sometimes you feel nausea, visceral distress or generalized achiness because you are sick with a virus or other bug. But other times (and in hypochondriacs, most of the time) your insula may be sounding the alarm over tiny imbalances that aren't really a problem. Sometimes you feel pain because of physical damage to your body - a sprain, a flesh wound, a bruise. But other times it may be a pain signal that stays "stuck" in your insula long after your peripheral tissues have healed - a pain memory playing on loop over and over again like a tune stuck maddeningly in your head.
Which brings us back to healing touch, the kind in which the therapist places her hands gently onto your body. The sensors in your skin that respond to sensual touch are designed to help keep your insula in tune. Healing touch may work not by smoothing out imbalances in a mystical energy field that surrounds the body, but by calming the insula. Even the mere anticipation of sensual touch triggers a response in the insula, according to a recent brain-imaging study - which goes a long way toward explaining the sensations a healer's hands can induce in your body without ever actually touching you.
Indeed, most alternative and complementary medical techniques seem to involve ways to calm or retune the insula. Some, like meditation and yoga, do this by cultivating your conscious awareness of your body's autonomic and visceral functioning. Others, like healing touch and aura massage, may rely more on the insula-calming power of gentle contact - or even just the expectation of it. Anything that brings your interoceptive circuits back into balance will be therapeutic.
Energetic biofields may not be real, but it seems the salutary effects of treating them as though they were are not illusions at all.
© Copyright 2007
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About the Authors
Sandra and Matthew, mother and son, are the third and fourth generation of science writers in the Blakeslee family. Sandra's grandfather Howard worked for the Associated Press starting in the 1920s and was one of the pioneers of American science writing. Howard's son Alton - Sandra's father, Matthew's grandfather - took over as AP science editor until retiring in 1985.
Sandra is a veteran science writer who contributes regularly to the New York Times. Her specialty is neuroscience. She lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she continues to work for the Times and write books. For the past 15 years, she has specialized in the brain sciences, and has written articles discussing science, religion and neurophysiology of spiritual experience.With Dr. Judith Wallerstein she co- authored Second Chances, The Good Marriage, The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce, and What About the Kids. She co-authored Phantoms in the Brain with Dr. V.S. Ramachandran and wrote On Intelligence with Jeff Hawkins. Her newest book is titled The Body Has a Mind of Its Own. For more information, go to www.sandrablakeslee.com.
Matthew trained in cognitive science but in the end decided not to become a neuroscientist. In 1999 he switched tracks and took up science writing, almost by accident. He lives in Topanga Canyon in Los Angeles, California, and divides his time between freelance and book writing. This is his first credited book. Visit him on-line here: www.matthewblakeslee.com.