By Heather Tick, M.D., Well Being Journal, Vol. 23, No. 5.
Hippocrates is the earliest recorded physician and medical philosopher, and we credit him with founding Western medicine. He practiced and philosophized over two thousand years ago. He was a holistic healer, which means he treated patients as a whole and not as a collection of parts, where each part could be treated as though it were separate from the others. Holism suggests the body cannot be separated from the mind and spirit. In general, the ancient healers, including aboriginal Americans, Africans, and others, were holistic.
Science took a turn away from holism during the seventeenth century, when René Descartes, often regarded as the father of modern philosophy, published a treatise endorsing dualism. It is perhaps no coincidence that this new attitude toward medicine was directly in line with church doctrine of the time—the church had severe ways of influencing scientific philosophers. In any case, Descartes’ ideas pushed science down the path of a mind-body split. This left the mind and spirit in the unchallenged domain of the church while allowing medical science to investigate the despirited body.
This focus on the physical body led to countless useful discoveries. During the time after Descartes, we learned a lot about anatomy, physiology, the heart, and circulation. These were important discoveries that gave us the foundation for our understanding of the human body. The human is more than the sum of the body’s physical parts, just as music is more than the sum of the instruments used to play it. Since Descartes, allopathic medicine has focused almost exclusively on the physical body, and the interconnection between the mind and body has been only rarely discussed.
Looking at the body as a machine has limited our ability to understand some of the complex workings of our system. Dualism has kept us from seeing that all conditions affect both mind and body. Over the past forty years, scientific discoveries have pushed medicine back toward holism. New research studies have shown us that the mind and the body use the same system of communication. Holism has been reborn as mind-body medicine.