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The mind-body connection: Some recent findings

Disaster struck us without warning. Tad, our youngest son, had brought much joy to all of us. As we watched him grow, we had great hopes for his future. Though we had been concerned about his increased tripping and falling, we never suspected his condition was as serious as it turned out to be. After extensive tests, the doctors diagnosed his illness as Niemann Pick—a degenerative brain disease. Tad was 11. Little was known about this terminal disease, but I was determined to find everything I could. Even as the doctors tried to treat Tad, I took on the battle from a different angle. I wanted to relate to Tad’s condition not just emotionally but intelligently, so as to make Tad feel as comfortable and cared for as possible. In desperation, I began to study brain anatomy and physiology. I wanted to probe the mysteries hidden within this mass of flesh that acts as the commanding center of Tad’s life, activities, and hope. Brain science suddenly became a compelling focus in my life.

Tad died six years after his diagnosis, just before his 17th birthday. Though this tragic loss left a permanent void in our hearts, the venture into brain science became a catalyst for me to gain new insights on the brain/body relationship. I read every book and article I could lay my hands on. I attended brain conferences and seminars. I dissected the human brain in neuroanatomy lab. My role in teacher education grew to include knowledge of the neurobiology of learning. Now I use this knowledge to help teachers to understand mind/body connections and facilitate learning.

This quest to learn about the brain also yielded a doctoral dissertation—a comparative analysis of two large bodies of education-relevant data: current educational brain research and Ellen G. White’s 100-year-old counsels to educators. Though this study compared data from two seemingly dissonant philosophical perspectives—naturalism and theism—the comparison provided new insights about the integral link between mind and body. The study also led to a postulate conclusion: that an active, fractal-like construct (see sidebar) is operant in life processes and can be identified in the relationship between mind and body.

A dynamic, fractal-like triad

The pervasive theme that emerged from this comparative study is that a dynamic relationship exists among three major brain function components—cortical processing (higher-order thinking or conscious thought), physical stimulation, and emotional/social/spiritual1 influence on brain and body function via neurochemistry. One hundred years ago, Ellen G. White referred to these three functions as “the physical, the mental, and the spiritual powers.”2

What is new about this ages-old triad construct is the scientific data substantiating and/or negating what merely has been speculated philosophically. Intuitively we have known that wholeness involves mind, body, and spirit. Now, with expanded knowledge about the brain and its relationship to the body, the concept of wholeness can be based on an even more objective perspective. With the aid of newly developed brain-imaging technology, we now can view the brain as it functions—not just engage in speculation based on external behavior.

Knowledge gained from new imaging techniques is further enhanced by increased knowledge about neurochemistry—a field that unites mind and body. Candace Pert’s 1972 discovery of the opiate receptor opened the way for greater understanding of how chemicals inside our bodies form a dynamic information network, linking mind and body.3 Pert equates neurochemistry with emotion—the phenomenon that occurs as neuron communicates with neuron and produces attitudes, spirit, and action. Emotion influences all thought potential before it is processed in “higher-order” cortical areas as conscious thought.

How do new perceptions about the mind/body/spirit construct relate to fractal theory? Before providing that explanation, perhaps a bit of narrative will help to inform those unacquainted with the term fractal.

As a child, I spent hours with my father in small aircraft. From high above, the earth patterns in the undeveloped terrain below fascinated me. Years later, patterns seen from the airplane appeared again in quarter-inch slabs of cut rock on which I wrote verses and gave away as gifts. Later still, similar patterns were evident under microscopes in science lab or through telescopes while viewing galaxies and nebula far beyond the Earth’s atmosphere. These fractal-like or repetitious patterns apparent in micro- and macrocosms I had observed over the years became even more meaningful after I read Margaret Wheatley’s Leadership and the New Science and become acquainted with fractal theory. Were these patterns in nature evidence of a grand plan of organization? Of Intelligent Design?

In my study of the brain, a repetitious mental construct also surfaced in the words of numerous specialists on the brain and learning as they described function at the neuronal level, within the brain itself as a functioning organ, and wholistically in the relationship between the brain and the body. Was this repetition evidence of additional fractal representation?

Clearly, researchers agreed that three major functions contribute to human reality—intellect, emotion, and physical activity. But had anyone else aligned brain study with fractal theory? A review of the literature confirmed the connection. Mercier, Bieberich, Ferandez, and others also discuss fractal function in a neuroscientific context.4

In comparing these large bodies of data, I began to see evidence of wholistic interplay between mind, body, and spirit—microscopically at the cellular level, anatomically in the organization of the brain itself, and overtly in the relationship between the brain and the body. Let’s look more closely at these three levels of form and function by starting first with the anatomical structure of the brain.

In the 1970s, when Paul MacLean proposed the triune brain theory, he described three levels of the brain—the cortex, the limbic center, and the brain stem/cerebellum. At that time, MacLean believed each of these areas functioned as a brain within the brain. Since then, however, MacLean has joined with others to adopt a different stance. Current thought suggests that each of these three areas functions as part of a dynamic whole. Each area is dependent on the other two as simultaneous and symbiotic processing takes place.

Though MacLean’s original concept has changed, the three major areas he identified are still considered to be basic areas of the anatomical brain. Each area is multifunctional and is integrated functionally with the other two parts and their functions. These three areas continue to be identified with the major functions that take place in each area.

The brain as a fractal organ

The cortical area of the brain is commonly identified with higher-order thinking and conscious thought; the limbic center is associated with emotion, sensory input produced by the environment, and memory; while the brain stem and cerebellum conduct incoming and outgoing information to and from the muscles, organs, and other aspects of the physical body, as well as coordinate physical movements. In a sense, the cortex can be thought of as the mental component; the limbic area as the emotional/social/spiritual component; and the brain stem/cerebellum as the physical component.

The neuron as a fractal organ

On a smaller scale, the mental/physical/spiritual fractal again is evident. The tiny neuron cell responds to neurochemical signals (emotional function), decides its response to the signal (mental function), and acts on this decision (physical function) through inhibition or transfer of the action potential. Not only does the neuron function in these three capacities, it pervasively influences and is influenced by these same elements. The cortex, the limbic area, and the brain stem/cerebellum are constantly affecting the neuron and are being affected by the function of the neuron.

Body/mind/spirit as a fractal organ

Looking at the body/mind from a larger perspective, the brain (mental) controls cognition, the body (physical) provides input to stimulate the brain to function, and neurochemistry (emotional/social/spiritual) is created by sensory stimulation—mostly from the environment, which activates neurochemicals to network or integrate the body and the brain. Without question, the interaction of body/mind/spirit affects its constituent parts. Is it also true that body/mind/spirit are affected by a broader representation of this postulated fractal?

There is abundant evidence that this fractal construct is functional in the environment that bathes the individual. Mental, physical, and spiritual influences not only surround us, they also contribute to the quality of our intellectual capacity, physical health, and emotional/social/spiritual condition and development. Consider the environmental impact among these three realities.

Mental stimuli in the environment

First, let’s look at intellectual capacity. For centuries, the nature versus nurture debate has raged, and traditionally nature seems to have commanded the lead. The big question has been: Which determines intelligence—genetics (nature) or environmental influence (nurture)? New knowledge about enrichment and the brain’s ability to change and grow now indicates that nature and nurture are about equal in determining cognitive ability. Environmental influences have much to do with turning on genetic functions that might otherwise remain latent.

Second, reigning philosophical influences also play a significant role in an individual’s mindset. The belief system of parents has a powerful impact on the attitudes, habits, and relationships of their children. Even before the child has explicit memory of biographical happenings, caregivers implicitly shape his or her mental orientation in ways that are extremely difficult if not impossible to change. Schools further develop the beliefs and orientations of society. These mental impresses mold our lives and, to a large extent, determine our life functions.

Third, what we think others think about us has a profound impact upon our self-concept and resilience. A considerable amount of current research on stereotype threat suggests that, consciously and unconsciously, others’ perceptions of us will determine our attitudes and performance. This phenomenon relates closely to the next consideration.

Emotional, social, spiritual stimuli in the environment

Emotional intelligence, a term popularized by Daniel Goleman in the 1990s, is now a well-rooted construct in educational theory, thanks to new knowledge about brain function. The role of emotion in cognition is undeniably profound. But emotion plays a star role in other disciplines, as well. The entertainment world realizes huge profits through adept emotional appeal to audiences around the world. New fields of study—neurocardiology, neuroeconomics, neuropsychology, to name a few—also address this relatively new focus on emotion.

You may wonder how neuroscience relates to economics and emotion. Paul Zak of Claremont Graduate University explains that pleasure and choice drive the stock market. And trust is another significant factor. New research on trust suggests that when two people trust each other, oxytocin levels rise in each individual. Oxytocin is a hormone—a neurochemical—that produces relaxation. Receptor sites throughout the brain respond favorably to appropriate levels of this neurotransmitter, which also promotes bonding. What stockbroker wouldn’t want a desirable client to bond professionally to him and subsequently to his firm?

Research on pheromones, heart-rate-variability signal transfer, and other emotional/social/spiritual influences also continues to provide information about the powerful role of neurochemistry in our environment. Not only does our own neurochemistry affect our surroundings, the environment impresses upon us in similar ways as well—consciously and unconsciously. Benefits from positive levels of emotion in the mind/body increase function of the immune system, the heart, respiration, and digestion.

Much research has addressed the effect of negative emotion on body/mind. Martin E. P. Seligman, former president of the American Psychological Association, describes how negative emotion can lead to clinical depression. In his search for ways to correct this tendency toward emotional imbalance, Seligman began collaborating with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Flow, a book about the value of peak motivational experience. Together they advanced a focus on positive emotion.

University of Michigan’s Barbara Fredrickson now specializes in psychophysiology and the effect of positive emotions on the mind and the brain. In an American Scientist article,5 Fredrickson cites research that suggests positive emotion promotes longevity, individual and collective functioning, psychological well-being, and physical health. She researches to find out “how and why ‘goodness’ matters.”6

Negative emotions—anger, fear, sadness, etc.—are “distinctly different experiences” that signal specific autonomic responses that are evidenced in facial expressions. Positive emotions—joy, amusement, serenity, etc.—are “relatively undifferentiated” and “have no distinguishable autonomic responses.” Negative emotion tends to move us toward survival action of some kind, while positive emotion helps us “solve problems concerning personal growth and development.”7

Positive emotions promote physical, intellectual, and psychological/social health that endures “long after the positive emotion has vanished,” Fredrickson suggests. This positive effect promotes resilience and optimism that may help to undo the harmful effects of negative emotion on mind and body.

“People who regularly feel positive emotions are in some respects lifted on an ‘upward spiral’ of continued growth and thriving.” They “become more helpful to others,” and can “transform communities into more cohesive, moral and harmonious social organizations.”8

More than one hundred years ago, Ellen White offered related counsel. She counseled that when the human mind connects with the mind of God, the Holy Spirit takes residence in the heart. When that occurs, the effect of love has a powerful, beneficial influence on the mind and the body, she explains. Subsequently, an atmosphere forms around us that is beneficial to all who come near. Negative emotion, on the other hand, is detrimental to self and to those near us.9

Emotion not only serves to transmit neurological data among neurons, within the brain, and between the brain and body; it also actively distributes to and influences the community around us. Research on positive emotion provides new meaning for the value of spiritual functions in maintaining mind/body health. Communal worship, trust in divine power, pausing for table grace before eating, shifting focus from self to the needs of others, etc., may be more beneficial than previously understood. Perhaps choices of this kind are innate tendencies toward a search for wholeness.

Physical stimuli in the environment

Physically, through sound, touch, taste, smell, and vision, the environment stimulates us to action as we attempt to survive and to thrive. Disequilibration is a significant part of these processes in that it requires motion through exchange. An example will help to explain.

Dr. George Javor, a biochemist at Loma Linda University in California, suggests that living matter constantly tries to move toward balance. However, if it arrives at balance and remains there, life dissipates.10

Case Western Reserve University’s James Zull claims that “movement is cognition expressed.” Circuitry within the cortical lobes naturally moves cognition repetitively from sensory integration to executive processing and ultimately toward action in the motor center of the cortex. Consequently, societal demands to work and to serve promote brain and body health.

Overlapping nature of environmental stimuli

Perhaps it has occurred to you that these three environmental influences are somewhat overlapping in nature. True to fractal theory, each component—mental, emotional/social/spiritual, and physical—does contain elements of the other two components.

Vital role of service

One hundred years ago, Ellen White promoted the idea that learning is a result of the “harmonious development of the physical, mental, and spiritual powers.”11 Further, she stated that this harmonious development “prepares the student for the joy of service in this world and the higher joy of wider service in the world to come.” Service as a fourth component in cultivating human development is critical in wholistic function. As a disequilibrator, it maintains healthful status.

Acquiring benefits educationally, relationally, and physically is vital; however, constantly taking in and not giving back again may truncate human potential. Like the Dead Sea, if we receive but do not altruistically contribute to the community around us, stagnation and loss of potency may result. When the human unit—mind/body/spirit—is activated in benevolence toward the community of which it is a fractal part, the integrity of life substance is honored, and human potential tends to thrive.

Balancing the pyramid

Wholistic function is most likely to occur when we honor balance between mind, body, and spirit (see Figure A). Figure B shows how one part of the triad fractal can swallow up the other two and lead toward personal imbalance. A “squashed” fractal is likely to truncate potential. But when the three dimensions are balanced and this wholeness is channeled in loving service to others, our potential is achieved.

Linda Caviness (Ph.D., Andrews University) teaches in the School of Education at La Sierra University. Address: 4700 Pierce Street; Riverside, California 92515; U.S.A. Email:


1. Though not all writers who apply brain research to education use the term spiritual, it is not uncommon to find references to wholistic functions of mental, physical, and emotional/social brain activity. The term spiritual is used, but not as frequently.

2. Ellen G. White, Education (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Publ. Assn., 1903), p. 13.

3. C. B. Pertner, Molecules of Emotion (New York: Scribner, 1997).

4. See F. Mercier, “Anatomy of the Brain Neurogenic Zones Revisited: Fractones and the Fibroblast/Macrophage Network,” Journal of Comparative Neurology, 451(2002, Sept. 16) 2:170-88; E. Bieberich, “Recurrent Fractal Networks: A Strategy for the Exchange of Local and Global Information Processing in the Brain,” Biosystems 66 (Aug.-Sept. 2002):145-164; and E. Ferandez, “Use of Fractal Theory in Neuroscience: Methods, Advantages, and Potential Problems,” Journal of Neuroscience Methods 24 (Aug. 2001) 4:309-321.

5. Barbara L. Frederickson, “The Value of Positive Emotions,” American Scientist 91 (Jul.-Aug. 2003): 330-335.

6. Ibid., p. 330.

7. Ibid., p. 332.

8. Ibid., p. 335.

9. Ellen G. White, “Life, Love, and Union,” The Signs of the Times, October 20, 1898, b.; “Sabbath-School Influences,” Sabbath School Worker, April 1, 1886, a; Sons and Daughters of God (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publ. Assn., 1955); Mind, Character, and Personality, 2 vols. (Nashville, Tenn.: Southern Publ. Assn., 1977), vol. 1, p. 802; Reflecting Christ (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Publ. Assn., 1985), p. 262; Faith and Works (Nashville. Tenn.: Southern Publ. Assn., 1979), p. 65.

10. George T. Javor, “Life: An Evidence for Creation,” Origins 28 (Mar. 2000) 1:24-33.

11. White, Education