View of a hospital bed through a window

Moody blues

Does our state of mind affect our response to illness?

Whether the body is influenced by the mind has been the subject of heated debate. Conventional medicine has tended to see the body as ‘hardware’, and disease as a broken transistor or switch that needs replacing. Psychological problems are ‘software’ issues, separate from the machine running them and needing different solutions.

Although it is early days, there are signs that mind and body, software and hardware, interact more than was initially thought. People with a positive attitude seem to recover more quickly from stress, and a negative attitude has been shown to be detrimental to health. But evidence about the benefits of a positive attitude on conditions like breast cancer seems unclear; some research suggests a benefit, other research doesn’t.

A recent study showed that breast cancer patients who imagined their bodies fighting cancer had a healthier immune response and felt better than their fellow patients. But despite this, disease progression didn’t seem to improve.

How might mental processes influence the body’s biochemistry? It is becoming clear that different aspects of human biology – such as the nervous system, immune system and hormone systems – are more interconnected than once thought. So the stress hormone, cortisol, affects the immune system, and we get more infections when we are stressed.

There is also evidence that mood can influence the immune system. For example, levels of messenger molecules, cytokines, are abnormal in depression.

Many self-help groups still actively encourage patients to fight cancer with positive thoughts, whatever the scientific evidence. But several doctors think this places an unfair burden on a patient, as patients worry about periods of negativity and blame themselves for relapses.

Lead image:

Lars Plougmann/Flickr CC BY NC

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Thinking’ in September 2006 and reviewed and updated in August 2014.

Psychology, Neuroscience, Health, infection and disease
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development