For years as a hard-nosed neuroscientist, I’ve been baffled by the success of clinical techniques that my wife, Chris Gilbert M.D. Ph.D., has pioneered to diagnose and cure illnesses such as back pain, chronic fatigue, stomach ailments, and recurring respiratory infections.
The reason for my head-scratching is that many of Dr. Chris’s diagnostic tests and therapies involve no technology at all, and are brain-dead simple. The bench scientist and geek in me (sensory physiology/chrono-neurobiology) instinctively rebels against a no-tech approach to anything, let alone medicine.
In an age of biotech marvels such as MRI, gene therapies, and targeted immunotherapies, my inner scientist is certain that no-tech approaches can’t be nearly as effective as modern medical science.
But the maddening fact is, my wife’s techniques do often work—so well in fact—that the bulk of her patients come to her because visits to other doctors who employ the latest drugs, tests, and procedures have failed to yield lasting results.
A cornerstone of Dr. Chris’s approach is a belief that patients’ bodies know more about what is ailing them and how to achieve lasting cures than do the patients’ conscious minds. So although she will start by asking questions of a patient’s mind, such as “What is going on in your life?” she quickly transitions to a dialogue with a patient’s body.
What’s the difference between talking to the mind and talking to the body?
When she addresses a patient’s mind, Dr. Chris simply asks the patient a question, but when she addresses the patient’s body she will first coach the patient to “become” the body part that is suffering, such the lower back, then to respond in the first person as the lower back.
I once witnessed (with the patient’s permission) a dialogue between Dr. Chris and an ailing back that went like this:
Dr. Chris: Welcome to my office, Back, tell me how you feel.
Back: I am stiff all the time, with shooting pains. After the drive home from work, I get horrible spasms.
Dr. Chris. Thank you, Back. Do your spasms usually come after sitting for a long time?
Back: Yes!! I hate, hate, hate sitting.
Dr. Chris: Is there anything else you hate?
Back: I can’t stand my owner’s mother. When we go over for dinner she picks at him endlessly and I get really tense and tight. I want to stay away from that woman!!! I never want to see her again!!
Dr. Chris: Ok, now that I know what you hate, what do you like?
Back: Swimming! I love it when my owner does laps in the pool. I get warm and loose.
After observing such sessions and having been Dr. Chris’s patient myself (for stomach troubles), I have been shocked by how much patient’s bodies “know” what their minds don’t know, and how quickly a dialogue with the body can relieve symptoms.
For example, the patient in the Back-to-Dr.Chris dialogue professed ignorance about what was triggering his back spasms, only to immediately pinpoint specific triggers for his pain (such as sitting and a nagging mother) when he was queried as his back.
And that same patient, who walked into the office with a lower back so stiff that he couldn’t bend at the waist, loosened up almost immediately after the Back-to-Dr.Chris dialogue, as if venting of the true source of back pain (sitting too long and being with his mother too long) in and of itself was therapeutic.
Once I overcame my skepticism that such simple, direct techniques could actually work a lot of the time (although not always), I started asking myself:
How can neuroscience explain the success of Dr. Chris’s brand of mind-body medicine?
I confess that I didn’t have a good answer until recently when I stumbled upon two unrelated sets of research findings more or less at the same time.
The first body of research described implicit memory. It turns out that we are constantly learning things and storing them away in our unconscious without any conscious awareness that we are learning, or indeed, any overt knowledge of what we have learned.
Ken Paller and Joel Voss of Northwestern University, for example, have shown that unconscious learning occurs when test subjects passively observed kaleidoscope images while paying attention to something else. Moreover, those same subjects were able to make correct “intuitive” guesses based upon what they have learned, without having any conscious awareness that they had learned anything in the first place.
This finding, along with a host of similar results from other labs, implies that much of what we ascribe to gut feelings, hunches, or intuition are actually products of unconscious or implicit learning from past experiences. For example, Dr. Chris’s patient with lower back pain probably learned unconsciously that his back tightened up every time he went over to his mother’s house for dinner.
The second body of research that offered clues to the success of Dr. Chris’s methods, concerned the storage of long-term memories in the sensory cortex. These studies suggest that sensory experiences leave lasting memory traces in the very parts of the cerebral cortex that initially activate when the experiences originally occurred.
Putting the implicit learning and sensory memory research together (admittedly something of an intuitive leap) one could conclude that unconscious memories relating to sensations in a particular body part, might be stored in the region of the sensory cortex that activates when that body part experiences sensations.
Below is a brain map that shows the how areas of the body stimulate different areas of somatosensory cerebral cortex responsible that are responsible for processing touch, vibration, pain, and other sensations from different body parts. The somatosensory cortex occupies a gyrus (i.e., ridge) of the brain just behind the central sulcus (i.e, central fold/groove) called the post-central gyrus. Referring to this map, unconscious sensory memories from the back region (as designated by the blue arrow in the diagram below) would be stored near the top of the post-central gyrus, next to the hemispheric fissure that divides the left and right half of the brain.
So, what might be happening when Dr. Chris addresses a patient’s back (vs. the patient themselves) is that she is focusing the patient’s attention on somatosensory memories and associations stored in a particular region of the cerebral cortex and that the local activation in the somatosensory cortex occurs that when she does this helps release memories stored in the “back cortex” that would otherwise have remained unconscious.
True, I have no experimental data (such as fMRI brain scans showing somatosensory activation during Dr. Chris’s dialogues) to support this theory, so for the moment, it remains just a theory.
But at least the scientist in me is less baffled knowing that a plausible explanation for Dr. Chris’s successes in mind-body medicine is out there.
Based on lots of implicit learning accumulated watching Dr. Chris work, my gut intuition is that neuroscience has as much to learn from the success of her methods as she does from neuroscience.
Learn more about Dr. Chris’s methods and my neuro-scientific explanations of them in The listening cure: healing secrets of an unconventional doctor
Gandhi, S. (2001). Memory retrieval: Reactivating sensory cortex. Current Biology, 11(1), R32-R34. doi:10.1016/s0960-9822(00)00040-3
Gilbert, C. (2017). Listening Cure : Healing Secrets of an Unconventional Doctor. SelectBooks, Incorporated. ISBN:1590794370
Hasan, M., Hernández-González, S., Dogbevia, G., Treviño, M., Bertocchi, I., Gruart, A., & Delgado-García, J. (2013). Role of motor cortex NMDA receptors in learning-dependent synaptic plasticity of behaving mice. Nature Communications, 4. doi:10.1038/ncomms3258
Voss, J., & Paller, K. (2009). An electrophysiological signature of unconscious recognition memory. Nature Neuroscience, 12(3), 349-355. doi:10.1038/nn.2260
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