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Monday, January 16, 2006

Why Do People Get Ill?

The finishing touches are completed for the second draft of 'Why Do People Get Ill?', due to be published by Penguin in October 2006. Intriguing stuff. The psychoanalyst/physician Michael Balint realised over 50 years ago that so many kinds of chronic disease arise from the immune system's dysregulated inflammatory response, and it seems that he was right. Then over the past few decades a huge amount has been discovered about interactions between the neural, endocrine and immune systems. The central question then is whether life's difficulties can sufficiently perturb these systems.

I was talking last summer to Niels Birbaumer, who worked in the early days on conditioning the autonomic nervous systems of rats, with psychsomatic theories in mind. He didn't need any convincing that our immune system may be significantly affected by our mental states. Niels is in charge of a brain imaging unit in Tübingen, and has done work on imaging musicians while they imagined they were playing. We discussed the possibility of doing similarly for mathematicians. We sketched a plan to conduct a pilot study around April/May. Are there any volunteers from not too far away? We would need professional mathematicians/ mathematical physicists and controls with a reasonable level of mathematics.


MathCogIdiocy said...

Is there any way I can get into the loop as far as information on this project goes. I have a degree in mathematics and am currently working on a degree in experimental psychology. My goal is to attend graduate school and study the cognitive processes underlying mathematics (not arithmetic or numbers!). It sounds as if this project slides very neatly into my area of interest.

January 27, 2006 11:59 PM  
Anonymous said...

Hmmm, be careful here. Psychologists and New Age people love to think that diseases follow from bad attitude, and make money from this idea. However, the cytokines generated by the immune system also heavily influence the brain, and the hypothalamus especially. And how does the brain cause the immune system to make auto-antibodies? I'm aware of many people with serious immune system diseases, autoimmune as well as deficiencies, who are now damaged from being dismissed for years by their primary physician as "just needing a little psychological help," and the psychologist are very happy to oblige.

January 29, 2006 3:05 AM  
david said...


We tried to be as careful as possible. It seems there is a very strong temptation to operate with a simplified causal picture of any disease. If a psychological mechanism is found, it's all the mind's doing; if an immunological mechanism is found, it's all the body's. This must be resisted. Sure cytokines from an immune reaction bring about changes in behaviour, like wanting to be alone with your viral infection. But the signalling is two-way. Conditioning of various aspects of immune response has been regularly achieved. The brain doesn't have to "make auto-antibodies" to be involved, any more than it needs to make muscle fibres for you to be able to flex your foot.

Even if a psychological mechanism had been shown to be involved in the production of physical symptoms this wouldn't mean necessarily that a psychological treatment could help.

January 29, 2006 8:39 PM  
david said...


Get in touch if you like:

david DOT corfield AT tuebingen DOT mpg DOT de

January 29, 2006 8:40 PM  
Anonymous said...


It looks like you have a balanced view of this subject which has been called psychoneuroimmunology. Both the immune system and the brain are marvelously complex organs, and the fact that they interact makes them even more fascinating. It seems that all this is also ripe for analysis by mathematics, and I believe some people have attempted this, although, as with mathematical physics, one would be attempting to model something which you are never sure you have complete information.

January 30, 2006 3:09 AM  
MathCogIdiocy said...

David -

I've emailed you.

January 31, 2006 11:46 PM  

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