WHAT IS DISEASE?
THE MEDICAL DISCOVERIES
OF THE LAST 20 YEARS
HAVE REVOLUTIONIZED THE CONCEPT OF DISEASE.
WE KNOW THAT THE ATTITUDE OF THE PATIENT
IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN MANY DRUGS,
AND TO LAUGH IS THE HEALTHIEST ATTITUDE.
1989 David Spiegel carried out an experiment to prove the importance
of emotions on our state of health. He certainly could not have
imagined that the simple opportunity of talking about one's problems
could double the chances of survival in cancer patients.
The experiment began by singling out a group of women, terminal
breast cancer patients, who were treated with the same drugs and
by the same doctors.
women were divided into two groups. Half of them were offered the
possibility of meeting every week and exchanging opinions on their
condition, freely expressing their feelings (something they were
afraid to do in their own homes for fear of saddening their family
members). The other half were given treatment without any particular
The women who had the possibility of sharing their feelings lived
on the average three years. The second group, a year and a half.
If a drug existed that would double the life expectancy of terminal
cancer patients, everyone would rush out to buy it.
Further evidence of the importance of psychological factors on health
came from research on the effects of drugs.
to test the effectiveness of a drug, it is administered to a group
of 100 people (a suitable number). Another group of patients, whose
physical health and social condition are as similar as possible
to the first group, is give a dummy drug (called placebo), made
with a small amount of sugar (or another neutral substance). None
of the patients know if they are taking the real or the dummy drug.
first unexpected phenomenon observed is that the results are not
very different in the two groups. Of 100 people taking the drug,
perhaps 88 feel some change, but many in the group who are tested
with the placebo report the same effects. If the positive effects
observed in the group taking the real drug exceed by 8% the positive
effects observed in the group that took water and sugar, one can
say that the drug works! Obviously, this difference increases when
anaesthetics, sleeping pills and other drugs act on basic physiological
Yet even in experiments using anesthetics, there are cases where
very ill patients report a total disappearance of pain when injected
with what they are told is morphine, but is actually just distilled
Another curious phenomenon amazed the researchers: if some members
of the group taking the drug suffer from side effects (pimples,
rashes or other), these side effects also affect a considerable,
though lesser, percentage of patients who take the placebo. Such
phenomena have always aroused interest in many scientists, leading
them to question the relationship between mind and body.
interest led to another discovery. There is a close relationship
between the doctor's feelings for the patient and the effect of
the treatment. The more communicative doctor cures 25% more sick
persons than the therapist who fails to empathize with his patients.
There is a wealth of medical research that proves the relationship
between mind and physiological reaction. By now it is certain that
attitude toward life, optimism and good humour are conditions that
statistically favour good health.
and stress, however, are risk factors that have a greater impact
than smoking or drinking. These medical discoveries have been
corroborated by research done with totally different objectives.
For example, French insurance companies, searching for the best
clients for life insurance policies, realized that among the factors
contributing to longevity were mental, social or work-related activities
beyond the age of retirement (such as teaching at a university or
being an artist), having a large home, being married and travelling.
short, the poor, the sad, the pissed-off and the pessimistic die
first. However, the stressed-out rich pessimists die before
the poor optimists.
Another confirmation of this thesis came from the experience of
doctors who carried out legal autopsies in areas infested by the
Mafia and other such criminal organizations. They found that criminals
living in a constant state of fear of being captured or eliminated
by rival bands all had the same disorders of certain internal organs
- a real "mafioso" syndrome. These are things that good
doctors have known since the time of Hippocrates and that psychosomatic
medicine has helped to make known. But it was never clear how this
happens. It wasn't until 1974 (thanks to research by Robert Ader
and David and Suzanne Felten), that it was discovered how emotions
influence the functioning of the organs.
Ader, from the Rochester University School of Medicine, conducted
experiments on mice. He gave them a drug that artificially reduced
the number of circulating cells. These cells are part of the immune
system, which defend the body from disease. The mice ingested the
drug dissolved in water sweetened with saccharine. After a certain
period of time, Ader tried giving them only water and saccharine.
To his amazement, he noticed that the number of T cells still decreased.
According to scientific knowledge at the time, this should not have
happened. It was as if the mouse immune system, having learned to
suppress T cells in order to defend itself from the drug, and having
associated the presence of the drug with the sweet taste of the
water, had also learned to react quickly, before perceiving the
effects of the drug. The brain registered the emotion produced by
the sweet taste of the water and managed to reduce T cell production.
This artificially - induced error was so persistent that with continued
administration of water and saccharine, the number of T cells diminished
to such a level that some animals became sick and died.
The neuroscientist Francisco Varela, of the Ecole Polytechnique
of Paris, defined the immune system as the "Body's brain",
the center of the "body's sense of self", which serves
to differentiate between what belongs within it and what does not.
"The immune cells travel in the blood throughout the entire
body, contacting virtually every other cell. Those cells they recognize,
they leave them alone; those they fail to recognize, they attack.
The attack either defends us against viruses, bacteria and cancerous
cells, or if the immune cells misidentify some of the body's own
cells, creates an autoimmune disease such as allergy or lupus. Until
Ader came upon his serendipitous discovery, every anatomist, every
physician and every biologist believed that the brain (along with
its extensions throughout the body via the central nervous system)
and the immune system were separate entities, neither able to influence
the operation of the other. There was no pathway that could connect
brain centers monitoring what the rat tasted with the areas of bone
marrow that manufacture T cells. Or so it had been thought for a
1974 to today there have been innumerable discoveries to confirm
a correlation between mind and body.
Emotions, in particular, are not only mental phenomena.
They have a powerful effect on the central autonomic
system that regulates all sorts of functions, from the quantity
of insulin secreted by the pancreas to the blood pressure level.
That a sudden scare could set the heart racing, or that the sight
of a sweet could trigger the secretion of saliva, has been known
for some time. However, David and Suzanne Felten succeeded in describing
this process in great detail, discovering that it is repeated at
all levels of physiological activity. With their team, they initially
singled out one of the communication pathways between the autonomic
nervous system and the cells of the immune system (lymphocytes and
macrophages). Using extremely powerful microscopes, they discovered
structures similar to the synapses of the brain, where the immune
system comes into contact with the nerve ends of the central nervous
to these synapses, the central nervous system cells communicate
with the immune system cells through neurotransmitters.
In this way, the autonomic nervous system regulates the activity
of the immune cells. However, it should be noted that the communication
can go both ways. It was never before imagined that immune cells
could communicate with the nervous system! Subsequently, it was
proven with guinea pigs that by surgically isolating the spleen
and pancreas (organs that produce or store the immune cells) from
the nervous system, these organs stop reacting in the proper way
against invasions of viral bacteria. In other words, in a way still
not entirely understood, the autonomic nervous system stimulates
the immune system to recognize elements foreign to the body. Therefore,
emotions not only influence the autonomic nervous system, but through
it, the emotions arrive at the immune system.
this phenomenon occurs simultaneously in different ways. In fact,
it has been discovered that emotions stimulate the release of
For example, in a state of stress, adrenaline, noradrenaline, prolactin,
cortisol and natural opiates (beta-endorphin and enkephalin) are
released into the blood. These substances all have a strong impact
on the immune system. Principally, they produce the effect of inhibiting
the activity of the immune cells so that all the available energies
are concentrated in the defense against danger provoked by stress
(fleeing from a lion is more urgent than curing a dumb cough). This
explains why a person under stress becomes ill more easily.
Finally, New Age research has highlighted the relationship between
stress, the instinctive unconscious brain, and involuntary muscular
contractions. The rigidity of the muscles has a direct effect on
blood circulation. In turn, the blood nourishes and regenerates
the cells. If, without noticing it, I keep one part of the body
contracted for a long time, all the tissues of this part will suffer.
summarize: a new map of human physiology is being drawn, where thoughts
and emotions (which are electrical discharges travelling through
our brain) are closely interconnected with the body.
Thus, it has been demonstrated unequivocally that there is a relationship
between stress, emotion and health (we will return to this theme
In short, popular wisdom has proved true. It has always been said
that to get angry "makes bad blood and ruins the liver"
and that "Heaven helps a happy heart". It is obvious that
a contented person, with a capacity for communication and optimism,
will not only be in better health but will also relate better with
others and find fulfillment in life. This greater success will in
its turn bring satisfaction and a further boost to psychological
and physical health.
years ago, "official" doctors quarreled with homeopaths,
acupuncturists and bioenergetic therapists over the relationship
between mind and health. Today, everyone believes that the success
of a cure depends a good deal on the mental attitude of the patient
and that certain illnesses, such as ulcers, are caused above all
by factors relating to emotional stress. On the other hand, even
alternative medicine has accepted the importance of the new medical
technologies, which especially in the diagnostic field are often
used in parallel with empirical methods of diagnosis.
all the emotional factors that can contribute to a good state of
health, laughter is for certain the most potent. First of all, it
is good exercise. For crying we use less than 20 muscles, but for
laughing we use more than 60.
Laughing produces a mechanical stimulus in the area of the temples,
and has a galvanizing effect on the functions of the brain and of
certain glands. It mobilizes the diaphragm, invigorates the intestines
and oxygenates the lungs. It stimulates an increase in the rate
of synthesis of the enkephalins, which are the go-betweens of the
central nervous system. It activates the secretion of endorphins
and other substances that besides giving a feeling of well being,
also enliven cellular functions and perk up the immune system (the
body's defense against infections, viruses and other external aggressions).
positive function of laughter on metabolism was also proved by observing
that newborns who laugh more are bigger and healthier.
It was found that laughter has a positive effect even on tumours
and leukemia. I read that it was an American journalist, Norman
Cousins, who made the discovery. He was diagnosed with a terrible
disease, ankylosing spondylarthritis. He decided to cure himself
by devoting himself to laughter and going to see stand-up comedians,
slapstick, clown acts, and comedy shows, reading joke books, watching
hilarious films and looking for the funny side in everything.
After six months, he discovered he was cured.
was the inventor of comic therapy.
For years now, comic videocassettes and clowns have been used as
therapy for the terminally ill in some American and French hospitals.
Sometimes laughter does not work, but at least the people die happier.
Play, emotional contact, and laughter have also been widely used
with hospitalized children with encouraging results.
It was in fact noticed that the oppressive atmosphere of hospitals
is not conducive to children's recovery.
Cheerful people are sent to play with abandoned infants and to make
them laugh. Puppeteers, actors and game leaders have entered hospital
wards. Recently, even in Italy, in the pediatric ward of the hospital
in Padua, the presence of puppies is being tested: animals have
an incredible capacity to induce play and laughter.
positive results of this "four-paws" therapy, however,
is nothing new. For example, the great effectiveness of hippotherapy
in the cure of handicaps and mental disorders has been verified
by decades of medical practice.
But laughter is important above all because it stimulates a particular
state of consciousness that is in itself extremely positive. I cannot
burst out laughing if my mood is not inclined to do so.
we look at a comedian and we know that he is going to make us laugh,
we enter an emotional state of happy and playful expectation. If
we do not enter this state, laughing is impossible. And each bout
of laughter induces us more and more to assume this open-minded
and light-hearted attitude. In a crescendo of carefree delight we
search, in the best moments, the famous fou rire, or crazy
this uncontrollable laughter that feeds on itself, we transcend
reality and magically come to see the world as a very complex and
hilarious cosmic joke.
becomes reason for jest and rip-roaring laughter. We laugh to the
point of tears, until we feel stomach pains, cramps, and finally,
exhausted, we stop laughing (ah, how wonderful it is to laugh!).
These fits of laughter are not just physically beneficial. They
also relax our mind, lighten our thoughts and make our fears seem
groundless. In short, they rid the brain of negative thoughts by
cleaning and reordering it.
Laughing is a cultural and philosophical experience. It makes
you change your mind about the world.
And when we are able to laugh about something that frightens
or pains us, we further the healing process of the psychological
wounds that life deals us.
heals the soul.
seeing things from the perspective of a laughter, we discover the
errors of our mind. When we are taken over by a wave of seriousness,
we feel important, conceited and self-assured. We do the most dumb-ass
things and end up in trouble. If we sift our plans, ambitions and
ideas each time through the sieve of laughter, we will then have
an exceptional tool for evaluation. Castaneda says there are three
cases in which I should be afraid:
I am sure of myself.
I am sure that others are wrong.
I am doing something in which there is nothing to laugh about.
I laugh, my way of seeing the world changes: the powerful are not
so very powerful and the aggressive often hurt only themselves.
And death, although inevitable, is not as bad as it seems. After
all, what does death matter? The important thing is to live, laugh
and make others laugh.
the immensity of billions and billions of years, here we are, for
a moment, on the stage of events. We have a few minutes to live
out our show. So what are you going to do? Sit in the corner brooding
because sooner or later it's going to end? Are you joking? Making
a loud racket is much, much better!
But it's still not over. Laughter is a means for
obtaining positive results.
switches off the rational mind, it overcomes it, sweeping away its
emotional ties and freeing the energy that habitually consumes itself
in thinking. When you laugh, this energy is used by the body to
regenerate itself. In those moments devoid of rational self-control,
we have a more open perception of our being part of the world. For
this reason, many masters consider laughing a sacred act of empathy
primary flaw in the sectarian and bureaucratic mentality of certain
religious leaders is in their seriousness and their lack of a sense
of humour, and therefore of the spiritual uplifting that hilarity
involves. They fear uproarious laughter because it weakens the power
that sustains them, which is characterized by fear and superstition.
Humour for them is a mysterious capacity, an unknown and treacherous
territory. That is why they don't want anybody to laugh in their
temples. They fear that they are being laughed at. On the contrary,
the true masters laughed first of all at themselves. They have always
seen laughter as a sacred gesture.
The first miracle of Jesus was to transform water
into wine so that people could dance and laugh! If he wanted us
sad he would have handed out a good shot of bromide to everyone.