The Heart and Mind in Chinese Medicine and Culture

A Report on the Event held at

The Forum, AcuMedic Centre, 5th October 2013

The key principles of Chinese medicine and acupuncture were explained in this lecture focused on the relationship between heart, mind and health. The free presentation was delivered by Professor Man Fong Mei, Clinical Director at the AcuMedic Clinic where over 50,000 patients were treated with Chinese herbal medicine and acupuncture. A diverse audience attended the talk to learn more about the Chinese medical perspective on the connections between mental and physical health.

Drawing on his vast experience of treating patients and teaching Western doctors, Professor Mei introduced some of the fundamental concepts in Chinese medical theory by tracing the parallels between its world-view and latest discoveries in quantum physics which are posing a challenge to the theoretical foundations of current Western medical education. The key thinkers in Chinese medicine and quantum physicists, past and present, were introduced and their ideas outlined. While the Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine (200 BC) was often mentioned as a key reference book, Professor Mei emphasised throughout the talk that Chinese medicine has been evolving for thousands of years before and after the text was compiled.

This informal, interactive lecture was devoted to exploring the influence of mind on your bodily health and the role played by the heart in this relationship. In Chinese medical theory the heart is classified as the most important organ. This is not only because the heart keeps you alive but also because it transfers mental experiences to the body and is responsible for your mental clarity and emotional balance which are fundamental to well-being.

From this perspective, the heart performs a dual function of crucial importance – physiological and psycho-emotional. In a physiological sense, the heart delivers essential chemicals to all parts of your body while carrying away waste and unwanted carbon monoxide. In Chinese medical terms, the heart also functions in the intersection between the psycho-emotional and the physiological facets of the person where emotions are assimilated – that is, in the centre of the human being. Hence the common use of the word ‘heart’ when describing a central location of something e.g. ‘In the heart of the city‘. In short, the heart is the link between the mind (the brain) and the body.

While in Western cultures the heart is often metaphorically viewed as the seat of emotions, Chinese medical theory has a similar idea which it developed further to help you understand the affects of emotions on your health. Perhaps the idiom, ‘Taking it close to heart‘ – used to describe the process of taking one’s troubles too seriously or being affected by them – comes from the ancient Chinese understanding of the role of heart/emotions in your health.

While Chinese medicine has developed and applied its understanding of the role of heart/emotions in health to diagnoses and treatment of various mental and physical conditions, in the West the understanding of the human mind is confined to the department of psychology and psychiatry. The mind is treated in psychiatry almost as a separate organ while the treatment of the rest of the human body is divided between surgeons, physiotherapists and other specialists occupying distinct medical disciplines. This is the traditional Western medical approach to body and disease. It is characterised by a microscopic focus on the mechanical workings of each body part and classification of diseases and is often presented in contrast to the Chinese medical approach. In Chinese medicine doctors are expected to have a more holistic understanding of the patient’s illnesses and their environmental context (hence Chinese medical doctors carry the more abstract title of Physician).

However, Professor Mei presented some surprising similarities shared by the Western and Chinese conceptions of the mind and its role in person’s development and well-being. To illustrate this, he summarised the influence of Chinese philosophy, particularly certain ideas of Daoism and such concepts as Yin and Yang, on the work of Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung who pioneered analytical psychology in the early 20th Century. Professor Mei presented the similarities between Jung’s ‘archetypes’ and the philosophical concepts developed in early Chinese civilisation and later used to inform the Chinese medical world-view.

Amongst the most striking examples of these similarities is Jung’s ‘Mother’ archetype and the Chinese concept of ‘Earth’. The concept of ‘Mother Earth’ is widely used in Western culture but its roots might ultimately lie in China’s philosophical heritage. Some of the most relevant archetypes developed by Jung were introduced and linked to a brief introduction of the Five Element theory and its importance to health according to Chinese medicine.

Professor Mei also outlined similarities between some of the concepts created by Sigmund Freud in the formulation of psychoanalysis and the understanding of ‘mind’, ‘soul’ and ‘spirit’ developed in Chinese philosophy and used to inform Chinese medical theory. Having outlined the modern Western clinical methods employed to deal with stress and psycho-emotional problems, Professor Mei explained the value of Chinese medicine in treating conditions of such nature. He cited research studies which discovered the ability of certain Chinese herbs to produce mood-enhancing endorphins in the body and emphasised the value of positive emotions for health and well-being.

He also outlined the current efforts being made in the field of molecular biology to understand the multitudes of therapeutic actions performed by Chinese herbs on multiple parts of the body. He provided insight into the logical processes behind a Chinese medical doctor’s formulation of herbal prescriptions and how it is based on a series of diagnostic techniques. Professor Mei advised the audience on the correct selection and use of Chinese herbs and quoted research studies to explain how to prevent interactions occurring between Western medicine and Chinese herbal medicine (leave 2 hours between taking each medicine to avoid any interactions). He also suggested a book which patients can consult to understand interactions between Chinese herbal medicinal products and orthodox drugs.

Professor Mei explained the ways in which the heart, via the mind, influences the health of the body: the placebo effect; and the role of negative emotions in occurrence or development of illness.

The placebo effect is often dismissed as an illusion triggered by ineffectual medical treatments. However, this is not simply a trick played on the patient’s mind, but an example of the crucial influence that your mind can exert over matter. To illustrate this, Professor Mei cited a clinical study conducted by his friend Dr. Ted Kaptchuk, an associate professor of medicine at the Harvard Medical School, which discovered that placebos can have a real therapeutic effect (relief in pain and in symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome, as reported by patients in the study) even when a patient knows they have taken a placebo. This is an example of the importance of patient’s, and indeed doctors’, own ‘placebo input’ in the success of a medical treatment. Even the leading New Scientist magazine are taking the placebo effect very seriously, having devoted to it its cover story ‘Heal Thyself’ in issue No. 2837, published on 27th August 2011.

While scientists are trying to grasp precisely how the placebo effect works, Professor Mei explained the Chinese medical perspective developed to understand the effect of your mind on your health. One of the basic concepts in Chinese medical theory is ‘The Heart houses the Mind’, that is, there is an inextricable connection between a healthy heart and a sound mind. This connection extends to the point where the words ‘heart’ and ‘mind’ can be used interchangeably.

Although research into human consciousness has traditionally focused on the brain, the heart might be the more important organ. To illustrate this point, Professor Mei cited a true story about a heart transplant case which occurred in America. The heart donor was a murderer and subsequently the transplant recipient was able to describe in vivid detail the acts of murder previously committed by the donor, seemingly after receiving some of the murderer’s consciousness in the transplanted heart. This case, explained to Professor Mei by a very distinguished Professor Deng Tie Tao (now 98 years old) during their meeting in 2011, supports the Chinese medical view that the heart is the most important of your organs.

Furthermore, the heart also controls the other vital internal organs, according to Chinese medical theory. What this means is that the effects on your mind can ultimately affect your body. Effects on the mind are processed through the heart as emotions which eventually affect certain organs. Adverse effects on the heart will lead to unsettled mind which can subsequently trigger an ailment or exacerbate an existing condition. The precise manifestations of this will vary between individuals.

The Chinese medical view of human anatomy was introduced and its inclusion of emotions highlighted by Professor Mei. According to Chinese medicine certain emotions can affect the circulation as well as the functioning of the main internal organs. He mentioned the seven main emotions classified in Chinese medicine according to their effects on the key organs and their role in health. To illustrate this, he described the effects of certain emotions on the liver and kidneys as examples. He cited clinical studies which linked liver enlargement with exposure to negative emotions – Liver stores anger – according to Chinese medicine theory. He mentioned examples of kidneys being weakened by fear (for example, people cannot control urination during an execution), as explained in Chinese medicine.

As certain emotions influence the organs it is probable that this process takes place at the molecular level of water – the material that constitutes the majority of your body. Professor Mei cited the work of Dr. Masaru Emoto whose research demonstrated that emotions can alter the structure of water. Dr. Emoto made this discovery by exposing samples of water to positive and negative emotions (spoken and written words expressing love and hate). The water was then frozen and its molecules photographed. Clear difference emerged between water exposed to positivity and negativity – the former turned into beautiful and symmetric crystals while the latter was in a state of disorder, characterised by broken shapes.

Professor Mei proceeded to explain meridians as the channels that carry information and nutrients in the living human body. He cited some of the latest scientific discoveries which understand meridians as mostly composed of water molecules. Professor Mei related this discovery back to Dr. Emoto’s research and suggested that if the water’s molecular structure can be strengthened or broken by using emotions, then your body’s meridians – which according to Chinese medicine facilitate circulation of blood and energy fundamental to vitality – are also susceptible to influences from positive emotions such as love, happiness, inspiration and negative emotions such as anger, fear or sorrow. By strengthening the water molecules that make up your body and its meridians, positive emotions can produce a healing effect. Conversely, negative emotions can be literally harmful to your body by disturbing its water composition and breaking meridians which carry the flow of Qi and blood.

The importance of the brain can never be overstated, and Professor Mei commented on its role in the development and treatments of pain. He outlined the modern physiological conception of the pain sensation as neural mechanisms in motion, but, also presented the  perplexing cases of ‘phantom pain’. The cases of phantom pain suggest that the sensations of pain can be stored In the brain and still be experienced by the patient even after the location of trauma (e.g. a limb) has been physically removed. He explained that acupuncture can relieve pain – even phantom pain – by affecting the brain through certain acupoints. The human brain can also store emotional pain caused by a traumatic life event and Professor Mei confirmed that emotional trauma can also be significantly relieved by using holistic Chinese medicine that combines herbal treatments, acupuncture and lifestyle medicine.

Professor Mei explained that acupuncture, developed over 5,000 years, can be used to affect all four of the human body’s nervous systems and support the person’s homeostasis. He also emphasised the value of Western medicine, the importance of taking antibiotic drugs or undergoing surgery in certain critical situations. The way forward has to be an integration of Chinese and Western medicines. He mentioned electro-acupuncture, TENS (transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation) machines and laser acupuncture as examples of integration where medical wisdom is applied through modern technology. In the UK this integrative ethos has been pioneered by the AcuMedic Centre.

Using the case of eczema as an example, Professor Mei recommended that a minimal use of steroid creams should be combined with Chinese medicine. However, in practice medical integration should be patient centred and details should be determined on the basis of the patient’s individual case. For example, in response to a question from the audience about the use of Chinese medicine against cancer, Professor Mei cited examples of patients in China recovering from cancer without using chemotherapy but only Chinese medicine,  which has the ability to eliminate tumours. Chinese medicine has been used to achieve this at the AcuMedic Centre as well, although often patients have to use a combination of Chinese and Western treatments.

While cases occur where Chinese medicine and acupuncture are misunderstood or misrepresented by the Western mass media, Profess Mei strove to answer all of the guests’ questions with clear and practically helpful answers. He provided some advice on how to improve your health by making changes to your mindset. The all-encompassing concept of Qi – central to the Chinese medical theory  – was explained to the audience by using various practical examples. The guests were encouraged to understand themselves and use the resulting knowledge as a starting point for maintaining or recovering well-being. With this advice in mind, remember not to take anything too close to heart!

Professor Man Fong Mei is Executive Chairman, Advisory Committee for Working of World Federation of Chinese Medicine Societies, Chairman of the Chinese Medical Institute and Register (CMIR) and the Chinese Medical Council (CMC, UK). He is also the Clinical Director at the AcuMedic Centre. Follow him @ProfMei

The Heart and Mind in Medicine