Psychoneuroimmunology and the Future of Medicine: Townsend Letters November 1988

Steven G. Ayre MD

The term “psychoneuroimmunology” in an important addition to the lexicon of big medical words. It is a significant moment when a new subject is assigned some complex terminology like this and then becomes incorporated into the jargon of medical science. The process both lends a necessary measure of mystery and confers a certain validity on the subject in question. In my opinion the arrival of this particular word is a most significant event as far as the future of medicine is concerned. Much more needs to be learned about it.

Analyzing the term indicates that there is some sort of connection between the mind or the psyche, and the nervous system and our immunologic function. Decidedly more important than the etymology of the word, however, is what this subject declares about love. It seems that there is an intimate connection between love – both of self and of others – and the etiology and treatment of disease. Coming from a generation where love was variously portrayed as “five feet of heaven in a ponytail” and “a many splendored thing,” it is certainly news to learn love can now also be considered a powerful medical tool with a therapeutic efficacy approaching that of a dose of cyclophosphamide.

The difficulty with psychoneuroimmunology is that it causes a blurring between objective reality as defined by the scientific method, and the subjective reality of an individual. Medical science is used to dealing in hard facts, but “love” is a fuzzy term if there ever was one. Perhaps the first thing to do would be to try and clarify the meaning of the word “love.” There is a Greek word “agape” which translates into something like “the all-forgiving redemptive love of God.” In this context, “love” is a forgiving and releasing from resentment. In psychoneuroimmunology it is this quality of love which the patient is encouraged to develop – first towards himself, and then in relation to others.

It would be ideal to have some universally applicable and scientifically acceptable approach for measuring love’s effect on people. The fundamental difficulty here. However, is how to know that a particular test subject is in fact availing himself or herself or whatever it is that love can make available. Failing some sort of breakthrough in EEG or EKG technology, perhaps it will be impossible to know a priori whether someone is “there” or not. Perhaps all that we might have available would be a posteriori observation from which we might be able to infer what the person’s real state of heart and/or mind had been. What then might we expect to observe? What could be the power of love?

Sir Isaac Newton originally described the relationship wherein for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. This law was meant to be applied to inanimate physical objects, but it can be observed to operate with equal precision in human interactions as well. Brining force to bear in any circumstance always results in the creation of a contrary resistance. This applies in both intrapersonal and interpersonal affairs. When obtained through such force, any positive results are only short-lived. For in time, when the force is withdrawn or relaxed, the accumulated resistance then works to undo what has been accomplished. Crash dieting and then regaining the weight is the best example we see of this phenomenon. We see similar things occurring all the time in our varieties of experience in clinical medicine. We may even admit to instances of the same law operating in our own lives as well.

In contradistinction to the above, it is the distinguishing characteristic of love that is a force, which creates nothing other than more of itself. When it is expressed in actuality, no negative consequences arise.

While the universe itself may be driven by the law of action and reaction towards an ever-increasing entropy, man with his potential consciousness of love has a way of rescuing himself from the analogous fate of disease. Factors of desire, courage, and personal committment all enter into the equation here, making the whole matter a very subjective experience. If this makes it objectively unverifiable by conventional scientific methodology, then I think we owe it to ourselves to devise some alternative way of looking at it.

Medical science is beginning to acknowledge the reality of love and laughter as vital factors in human experience. For some time there g=had been a fascination with the technological side of medicine which has caused the profession to overlook these seemingly less sophisticated matters. This has been a detriment to our real effectiveness on behalf of the patient. The whole has been part of an evolution and thus, wherever possible, it would be our professional responsibility to try and set things aright.

Psychoneuroimmunology is going to play a central role in medicine in the years to come. Mastering this subject as a complement to conventional medical management will be the challenge of the future. Time and working in the right spirit are what we will need to meet this challenge successfully. In this context, the words of the French theologian Teilard de Chardin may be for our encouragement:

Teilard de Chardin
Teilard de Chardin

“Someday, after we have mastered the winds, the waves, the tides, and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love. Then for the second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.”

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