Research News

Mind-body connection is built into brain, study suggests

Findings point to brain areas in the motor cortex that integrate planning, purpose, physiology, behavior, movement

Calm body, calm mind, say the practitioners of mindfulness. A new study, partially funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation, indicates that the idea of the body and mind being inextricably intertwined is more than just an abstraction. The study was done by a large multi-university team led by researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.

The results show that parts of the brain that control movement are interleaved and connected with networks involved in thinking and planning, and in control of involuntary bodily functions such as blood pressure and heartbeat. The findings represent a literal link of body and mind in the structure of the motor circuits in the brain.

The research, published in the journal Nature, could help explain some baffling phenomena, such as why anxiety makes some people want to pace back and forth or causes “butterflies in the stomach;” why stimulating the vagus nerve, which regulates internal organ functions such as digestion and heart rate, may alleviate depression; and why people who exercise regularly report a more positive outlook on life.

“People who meditate say that by calming your body with, say, breathing exercises, you also calm your mind,” said first author Evan Gordon. “Those practices can be helpful for people with anxiety, for example, but so far, there hasn’t been much scientific evidence for how it works. But now we’ve found a connection.

“We’ve found the place where the highly active, goal-oriented ‘go, go, go’ part of your mind connects to parts of the brain that control breathing and heart rate. If you calm one down, it should have feedback effects on the other.”

Gordon and senior author Nico Dosenbach initially set out to verify the long-established map of areas of the brain that control movement, using modern brain-imaging techniques. They did not set out to answer age-old philosophical questions about the relationship between the body and the mind, but their discoveries have led to a new understanding of the organization of the motor cortex.

“This project provides new insights into the brain organization and functional connectivity of the human motor cortex,” said NSF program director Jonathan Fritz. “It shows that the brain’s motor circuits are integrated with executive and cognitive function, and with control of basic bodily processes, revealing that body and mind, perception and action, are closely woven together.”