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Descartes and Psychoneuroimmunology Essay

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Updated: Mar 22nd, 2022


My research area of interest is Psychoneuroimmunology (PNI). This entails the study of how the brain, neuro-endocrinal process, health of an individual, and the immune system, as well as behavioral characteristics, interact with one another (Maier, Watkins, & Fleshner, 1994 p.7). Western medical science has long maintained a clear distinction between the physical and psychological domains. This dichotomy between the mind and body is based on a fundamental claim of the French philosopher, Rene Descartes (Webber, 2010, p.160), who is widely remembered for what has come to be known as Cartesian Dualism. This concept brings us to one of the central doctrines of the Meditations and the lasting legacies of Descartes’s work, which is the real distinction between the mind and the body.

Therefore, the purpose of this paper is to describe Descartes’ philosophical contexts of the mind-body link that relates to PNI, to analyze the major positions, develop the philosophical background of the issue and describe its implications as well as to explain how the portrayal of the topic will add to knowledge development in nursing.

Who is Descartes?

This should be the initial research question when doing this study. Descartes was a mathematical genius who worked out the first treatment of negative roots (Rodgers, 2005, p.1). He was responsible for the development of Cartesian coordinates and Cartesian angles. Descartes can be said to be the founder of analytical geometry where he made numerous optical discoveries dealing with reflection and refraction of light. Being a philosopher, Descartes attempted to apply mathematical methods to every aspect of life. He disapproved of the existing scholastic beliefs and teachings and went further to found his system based on universal doubt (Rodgers, 2005, p.1). Descartes argued that the mind was a separate entity from the real body but happen to share some things altogether. Descartes reasoned that this dualism was made viable by the pineal gland which is a tiny piece of tissue found in the central brain. According to him, the soul was granted access to the body through this gland (Rodgers, 2005, p.1).

The Major Proposition

The present Western healthcare system concurs with Descartes’ principle that there are two distinct and separate substances in the world. These are matter, which acts according to physical laws, and spirit, which is immaterial and has no dimensions (Rodgers, 2005, p.1). For example, when specific microorganisms induce disease in a human being, the physicians interview the patients to ask for their signs and symptoms. After which they order laboratories to carry out diagnostic procedures, and then prescribe a specific drug to fight and destroy the offending pathogen. Descartes believed the mind and the body interacted in the brain. Using his fledging powers of observation and deductive reasoning, Descartes’ conclusion and beliefs regarding the differences between the spirit and body have become the philosophy in our today lives.

The important thing to point out is that this union was somehow misunderstood a long time ago as the separation of the mind from the body. Descartes never assumed a separation he instead claimed that the mind and the body are different (Rodgers, 2005, p.2). In my point of view, it can be easily misunderstood in such a manner because it was a new emerging philosophical concept that had not been addressed previously. It is clear at this point that the philosopher who had the greatest influence on my research area is one of the most recognized thinkers on mind and matter.

Philosophical Background

Descartes is with no doubt the person who first introduced the idea of dualism which led to other philosophers’ new thinking on the same. He also began the unraveling of the ancient link between emotions and health. There is an assumption that during his adult life, Descartes caused the spread of pandemonium in Europe because of the feeling he had on religious wars. The people looked down upon him because of his concepts of rationalism yet they ended up being the cornerstones of modern science. They instead mistook his rationalism to be irrationalism in terms of medical practice. They continued being stubborn to him but he overcame after achieving scientific gadgets that we’re able to beat the challenge (Sternberg, 2000, p.27).

Relating philosophical issues to PNI

Many significant factors affect the health and wellness of an individual (Solomon & Moos, 1964, p.666). Additionally, emotions play an important role in the development of physical disease (Langley, Fonseca, & Iphofen, 2006, p.1167). PNI is concerned with the mechanisms of duo directional pathways that link the brain and the immune system. These pathways also act as the foundation for neuroendocrine and behavioral effects on the immune system (Ader, 2001, p.95). Due to this, different stressors are responsible for the different reactions in the body (Ader, 2001, p.95). The effects on the immune system are hypothesized to mediate the effects of psychological factors and the development of some diseases (Ader, 2001, p.97). These reactions alter the state of homeostasis (Langley, Fonseca & Iphofen, 2006, p.1168). On the other hand, PNI is the science that links the mind (psychological processes) and the body (immune system). This is very important to nursing as it offers a foundation to support high-quality caring and empathetic nursing.

The PNI framework has also been used in other disciplines. Here it has been applied in the investigations of the relationship between the behavior of an individual and diseases that affect immunity. It has also been used to evaluate the effect of immune changes on the central nervous system (Zeller, et al, 1996, p.660). Nursing researchers have contributed to the growing field of PNI and generated innovative knowledge regarding mind-body connections in health and illness. In addition to this, researchers developed strategies that promote mental and physical health in persons at risk for immune dysfunction (Zeller et al, 1996). PNI, in other words, relates the mind and body both scientifically as well as philosophically so that people can understand stress (Robins et al, 2006). The rapidly growing research in this field indicates a positive outcome of the solutions to stress-related problems that are depicted in a human being (Robins et al, 2006, p.7).

Implications for knowledge development in nursing

There is ample evidence showing that nursing interventions aimed to reduce psychological stress of the mind have direct positive effects on physiological health outcomes of the body. This again correlates with Descartes’s philosophy of the mind and body link. To understand this philosophy one can look at the evidence in the light of Descartes’’ philosophy. The following sections will provide examples in regard to inflammation and viral diseases. With regard to inflammation, there was a study done recently on possible ways of reducing stress and especially those related to proinflammatory cytokine (Koh et al, 2008, p.1136). In addition to this, it was found out relaxing during instances of psychological stress is a good counteract as it reduces the proinflammatory cytokines. (Koh, et al, 2008, p.1136).

Another research carried out indicated that the ability of an individual to control his or her anger correlated with the resulting solution to the problem (Gouin et al, 2008, p.702). Last but not least, O’Donnell and colleagues investigated whether global self-esteem might cushion cardiovascular and inflammatory responses to acute stress (O’ Donnell et al, 2008, p.1245). Their results indicated that there was a correlation between self-esteem and heart rate. In this case, it showed that lower or weakened heart rates were depicted in cases of low self-esteem. They concluded that these responses might possibly be the process through which self-esteem protects against the development of disease (O’ Donnell et al, 2008, p.1245).

Secondly, in regards to viral diseases, Bennett and colleagues conducted a study to determine the effect of laughter on self-reported stress and natural killer cell activity (NKCA) (Bennett et al, 1998, p.42). Their treatment of study included watching humorous videos as their experiment. A tourism video was used for the control study after which the data was analyzed. Their results revealed that laughter might reduce stress and improve NKCA. On completion of their study, Bennett and his colleagues concluded that laughing was one of the ways of concurring psychological stress. This is because it leads to low levels of NKCA hence it is recommendable to patients with terminal diseases like cancer (Bennett et al, 1998, p.42).

In another study conducted by Ashcraft and Bonneau to find out the effects of stress, mice were used for the study. They infected the mice for study with the vaginal herpes simplex virus and thereafter watched them for stress by looking at the response they had on immune and pathological processes. They found out that they underwent psychological discomfort which led to a higher concentration of the infection. They, therefore, concluded that psychological stress suppresses both innate and adaptive immune reactions. These results are an important factor in the ability to control vaginal HSV infection and outbreaks (Ashcraft and Bonneau, 2008, p.1238).

Last but not least, another researcher by the name of Robins introduced a novel tai chi intervention and provided quantitative and qualitative data from a randomized clinical trial. Robins was able to conclude that the psychological stress varies with the stages of the HIV infection that is at each stage of the disease the patient experienced a different level of stress (Robins et al, 2006, p.7). All the aforementioned studies conducted were aimed at showing how nursing interventions aimed to reduce psychological stress of the mind have direct positive effects on physiological health outcomes of the body. This on the other hand increased the knowledge of PIN in nursing.

Beyond the philosophical perspective

Descartes’s philosophy of the mind and body link is limited to the connections in one’s individuality. However, it does not expand to the effect of a third party such as family stress on the mind and the body. For example, a recent study was done on the same look at the possible incidences of psychological stress in the family and its relation to the rate at which children fell ill in the same family. In this, the frequency of virus 6 infections as well as the immunity factor was looked into. They concluded that there is a significant relationship between parental mental illness and physiological illness in normally developing children (Caserta, et al, 2008, 933) This represents quite an expansion to the philosophy of Descartes where the mind of third party stress that is the mother’s mind is somehow connected to the body of the child.

On the other hand, the directionality of this connection is fascinating in the PNI research. A case at hand is that of transporting T lymphocytes to distinct parts of the body. These parts may be the major organs such as the liver, skin heart just to mention but a few. These are transferred to such parts in a bid to boost the body’s defense mechanism, especially that caused by psychological stress. Lewitus also indicated that some of these T lymphocytes could be transported to the brain during acute psychological stress. Lewitus and his team advised that the T lymphocyte cells could be used in the therapy of people with psychological stress. They indicated that the T cell acted as a cushion to offer immunization to such patients. A good example is those found in posttraumatic stress disorder (Lewitus et al, 2008, 1109). This on the other hand represents another expansion to the philosophy where introducing extraneous factors such as immunization with a myelin-related peptide can influence the connection between the mind (Reduction of PTSD) and the body (boosting the immune system T cells), which is an important factor in psychological stress response.


The field of PNI is extremely active and the future is in the process of developing and implementing evidence-based nursing interventions based on PNI physiological and psychological research that elicit the desired effect(Littrell, 2008, p.30). Descartes’s contribution to modern science is fascinating. Although Descartes had these ideas about the mind, soul, emotions, and body, he did not have the technology to confirm them. As a matter of fact, we know now that the mind does influence the body in many ways. Therefore, it is necessary to mention that Descartes had the mindfulness to envision the connection between the mind and the body a long time ago. The field of Psychoneuroimmunology has witnessed an explosion of empirical findings during the last two decades (Littrell, 2008, p.32). Even though there was a state of confusion in this research, there is continual research on this field to get the scientific evidence as well as knowledge in clinical medicine. This is so, in a bid to excavate more information on the relationship of body and mind (Littrell, 2008, p.28). The evolution of this philosophical context of Western medicine will facilitate the understanding of PNI. It is hoped that research will continue to contribute to the innovative understanding of mind and body. Since I plan to venture so much in the findings of this research on the relationship between emotions and health, I will rejoin the spheres that Descartes divided by looking deeply into the molecular level of life. That way, I am sure I will have a breakthrough and in the long run, have a full understanding of this issue.


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