We desperately need a new model of the human body. Compliance with the standard model of prevention (moderate exercise, abstinence from alcohol and tobacco, a Mediterranean diet, and stress management) remains fitful and haphazard. Why? It's not for lack of information but lack of motivation. A positive lifestyle requires that you comply day in and day out for decades if you want to receive the full benefit, which arrives fairly late in life. We pay for early mistakes by a decline that generally doesn't show overt symptoms until around late middle age. It's hard to deprive yourself today in order to reward yourself twenty or thirty years from now.
So what would it take to improve people's motivation? I can find only one answer: reinvent the human body. The way you think about your body leads to the way you treat it. For people to shift their behavior toward self-care and heightened well-being, we don't need just compliance with standard prevention. There also has to be a drop in our addiction to drugs and surgery as the main approaches of medicine. Over the course of history, there have been four major models of the body:
The body as a collection of Nature's basic elements (the medieval conception of the four humors is an example).
The body as the temple of the soul.
The body as an expression of the life force (the Chinese concept of Chi is an example).
The body as a machine.
Depending on which model your culture accepted, you approached illness and wellness in different ways. A doctor might advise a patient to pray to God as opposed to taking a pill, strengthening his Chi, or correcting imbalances in the four humors. Today the body-as-machine model prevails thanks to the reductionist method of science. Machines are repaired by mechanics who tinker with its defective parts, and that's basically what doctors do in their practice. But it's obvious that your body isn't a machine. Your body is alive, for one thing. It can heal itself. It's self-organizing and self-regulating. Exercise makes it stronger, whereas a machine, if used more often, begins to wear out.
Yet the biggest flaw in the machine model, as I see it, is its rejection of the mind-body connection. When I was in medical school, no such thing existed. At most we learned about psychosomatic disorders, with the clear implication that they weren't real, being the result of the patient's imagination. This situation hasn't changed much in medical school, sad to say, but the surge in alternative and integrated medicine has brought the mind-body connection to the fore. This development is so important that a fourth model of the body is being formulated as we speak: a systems model.
In the systems model, every cell is intelligent. The body holds together through a constant stream of information that reaches every cell. Homeostasis - a state of dynamic balance - represents health. Inflammation, as yet not fully understood, represents the state of imbalance, leading to many if not most diseases. A person's habits, attitudes, beliefs, and behavior are the key to well-being, since messages from the brain affect the whole body. The brain plays a critical role in the feedback loops that maintain homeostasis, yet at every level, down to the expression of your genes, feedback repeats the same pattern of input and output. Positive input promotes well-being; negative input impairs well-being.
-The advantages of a systems model can be summarized in a few key points:
- Self-care becomes primary care, not reliance on drugs and surgery from a doctor.
- Beliefs and attitudes assume the same status as physical input, such as food and exercise.
- Improving genetic expression is now possible, extending the benefits of positive lifestyle changes.
- Positive lifestyle changes don't need years to show benefits but start immediately.
- Most chronic disorders become preventable through routine maintenance of the whole system. This includes heart disease and probably the vast majority of cancers.
- Mind-oriented practices like meditation improve well-being throughout the system, all the way down to the genetic level.
There is abundant and mounting evidence that all of these things are true, which means that a systems model has reality on its side, more so than the machine model. In reality your body is a process, not a thing. Well-being depends on finding your flow, in terms of a relaxed but alert mental state, a steady positive mood about your life, following the natural rhythm of rest and activity, taking realistic, practical steps to reduce stress, respecting the need for a good night's sleep, avoiding toxins, and relying on your body's intelligence.
It's the last point that will radically change people's behavior, I believe. Our basic attitude should be a reliance on the intelligence that is innate in every cell. Instead of seeing the body as a machine that, like a new car, must deteriorate over time, we should see it as a system that learns, adapts, and improves over time. In short, we need to let the body take care of us, for that is what it's actually doing. The one thing this amazingly self-sufficient system needs from you is better input. A host of things constitute better input:
- Whatever makes you happier.
- Being more relaxed and accepting.
- Strong self-esteem, a sense of worth.
- Being of service to others, giving.
- Showing generosity of spirit.
- Loving, nurturing relationships.
- Any activity that makes you feel light in mind and body.
- Taking time to play, and having a playful attitude.
- Not stressing out other people.
- Devoting yourself to projects that have real meaning and purpose.
- Being self-aware.
- Expanding our awareness. Growing and maturing from the inside.
- Being comfortable with your inner world.
- Working through negative emotions like anger, envy, and fear.
- Reverence for Nature.
- Faith and a belief in a higher power, whatever that may be.
As you can see, almost none of this is advice you will hear in a doctor's office, and much of it goes far beyond standard prevention, which is based on risks. Of course it's good to avoid risks, but thinking in terms of what can go wrong induces fear, and fear is a very poor motivator over the long run. Becoming happier and more fulfilled day by day is a much better motivator, and as you can see, a systems approach expands our conception of the body to include everything that is mentally, psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually fulfilling. That’s the ultimate reason to embrace the new systems model as far as I'm concerned. Do you agree?