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Dr. Thomas R. Verny at his office in Toronto.DEBORAH BAIC/The Globe and Mail

In his latest book, The Embodied Mind, Thomas Verny aims to change the way we think about how we think. Instead of regarding the mind as a compartmentalized byproduct of how the brain works, the Stratford, Ont.-based author and clinical psychiatrist argues that the mind is part of our biology in a more fundamental way – and inseparable from it. He spoke with The Globe and Mail’s science reporter, Ivan Semeniuk, about what the latest research has to say on the subject.

In media and in everyday language we often hear descriptions of how we’re “wired” or “programmed” for one thing or another, as if our brains are computers inside our heads and “the mind” is the software. What’s wrong with this picture?

Lots of things! The mind is not separate from the body, and so this emphasis on the brain as if it was a separate object is misguided. There’s amazing research coming out now on the connection between the brain and, let’s say, the “below the neck” body. Some of it relates to the importance of messages coming from our heart and lungs and our gut, and how they influence how we feel and how we think.

How are our guts involved in our thoughts?

We know that each of us carries about five pounds of gut microbes. They produce a great number of organic substances which, either through the blood or through the vagus nerve, go to the brain and influence our moods and cognition. The recent research very much stresses the importance of these connections between cells, tissues and visceral organs. The point is that the brain does not work alone.

What does your book bring to this discussion that is new?

I write that we are no longer looking at the brain as an “en-skulled” brain, but as an embodied brain. Cognition is a product of the full body. In a sentence, what I am saying is that it is the existence in our bodies of an interconnected, unified, multilevel, self-regulating and cellular memory system that allows us to be fully functional human beings.

You’re known for your writing on prenatal psychology. How does that earlier work connect to the idea of an embodied mind?

I am originally from Czechoslovakia, but when I was 13 years old, my family was living in Vienna. And the first book I read in German was Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams. I was very impressed by the methodology and thought it was an important book. Then and there I made up my mind to become a psychiatrist. Years later when I became a general practitioner, I began to see that many of my patients’ problems did not start yesterday or last week, but in their childhoods. So I became very interested in the earliest memories and the idea that we have a kind of dual type of memory – neurological memory in the cortex, but also cellular memory. But I could not explain cellular memory. It was just a concept without real scientific support.

Do you think science is catching up with this idea?

Let me give you a recent example. Everybody knows about the stress response and everyone thinks that it starts in the brain. The brain definitely has something to do with it. But there’s new research to show that there is a hormone called osteocalcin and, as the name implies, it’s produced by the bones. Research is beginning to show that without it, you don’t have a stress response. Other research shows that that people who have heart disease have a much higher rate of Alzheimer’s. Now why should that be? So there are all these messages and hormones being produced by various tissues that constantly communicate with the brain. It’s a two-way street.

What are the health implications of thinking about the brain this way?

In my book, I refer to an experiment with hotel maids. It’s a very simple, beautiful research study. In the study, half of the maids in one New York hotel are told that what they do – cleaning up, changing sheets, all that kind of stuff – is serious exercise that really helps their bodies to become healthy. The other group was told about the benefits of exercising without the information that their work counts as exercise. When the researchers checked at 30 days, the first group showed all kinds of positive health benefits – lower blood pressure, weight loss. Yet they did nothing different. The only difference was that they believed that they were getting exercise. Researchers have done a lot of research which really shows the power of the mind. This is something that I hope comes out in my book – that my readers will realize that they really are the architects of their own lives and that they can do a lot about it.

There has been plenty written about brains and minds in recent years. Which authors have influenced you the most?

I would say Daniel Seigel’s The Developing Mind. I also liked Andy Clark’s Surfing Uncertainty and Canadian author Norman Doidge’s book The Brain that Changes Itself. One more that I really like is Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers by Robert Sapolsky, which is about stress-related disease.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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