The Separation of Mind and Body in Health – A Historical Perspective

The concept of ancient health and medicine can sometimes appear mysterious and difficult to comprehend to modern day man, particularly when attempts are made to measure the Ancient’s knowledge by the intellectual, scientific models and standards of today.  The formation and growth of modern medicine can be traced back across thousands of years – its development encouraged by more settled human societies, religion, philosophy, education, trade, and of course, the ever enquiring human mind.

Latterly, with so many astonishing advances occurring within science and modern medicine it might be perhaps easy to imagine that human beings could only have gained with regards to their health.  Whilst scientific achievements are undoubtedly of tremendous value to the entire human race – it could also be argued along its developmental journey both science and modern medicine became, for a time, somewhat blinded to fully appreciating the complex human condition, and the innate and subtle interactions between mind and body.


imagePre-literate man left us no written record of his knowledge of the body, health or medicines, although anthropologists have been able to make some associations with modern-day cultures such as the Australian Aborigines, who until the late eighteenth century remained entirely isolated from the outside world, yet were discovered to be relatively healthy (Graham, 1999).  It is believed many pre-historic tribes believed in animism – a concept stating that individual lives and the functions of the human body were influenced by, and at the mercy of, unpredictable spirits.  Belief systems such as these placed the Shaman, or witch doctor, at the centre of tribal nomadic life.  The Shaman was viewed as a master of divination, healing, foresight, and interpretation.  The Shaman could communicate with the spirit world.  He possessed mastery over fire and rain, and he could journey in varying altered states of consciousness for the purpose of diagnosis, prophecy or insight.

Whereas in the modern sense illness and disease might be viewed as external agents affecting the body, to these ancient pre-historic and shamanic cultures illness was essentially considered a spiritual matter; one principally believed to stem from a loss of individual personal power – with dis-ease considered as originating and gaining meaning from the spiritual.

Ancient Egypt

The emergence of the great human civilisations and the growing exploration of the wider world meant a more structured concept of healing soon began to emerge.  The ancient Egyptians were perhaps the first to embrace and formalise the concept of medicine and healing.  Increased stability stemming from more settled farming economies encouraged the development of formalised governments, laws and social norms, as well as sparking the emergence of structured religious practices and the invention of writing and calculation.  The significant development of writing meant rather than relying on verbal tradition alone for passing on knowledge, ideas could be now be recorded and developed for further study and education.

Medicine however was still deeply rooted in the magical and the divine, and the healer priests of the time were highly regarded as the holders and keepers of ancient sacred wisdom.  The Egyptians viewed their very existence as being intrinsically connected to the workings of the universe, and often directly to the working of their Gods.  To the ancient Egyptians the universe existed in perfect energetic harmony, with man considered a perfect microcosm and representation of that harmony.

imageAs well as colour and rhythm existing as important healing tools, higher status priests were also said to be able to tap into and direct natural universal energies and they were particularly interested in energies emanating from the sun (or Ra).  Healer priests sought to direct energy emanating from the sun into their patient – and so practiced the passing of hands over the body – in an attempt to invoke changes in the subtle etheric energy (or spiritual body).  The priests believed the energy could be absorbed into the more vital, physical elements of the individual, thus inducing a state of both spiritual and physical healing.  The temple priests also made use of herbs and spices brought back by traders from all over the known world, and the practice of mummification encouraged a deeper understanding of the body and its internal organs.

The Egyptian concept of channel theory emerged after temple priests observed damage occurring in farmer’s fields when the irrigation channels became blocked.  The principle was also utilised as a source of understanding disease within the human body.  The development of this more formalised theory of human health began to signify Egyptian Gods were no longer being perceived as entirely responsible for human illness – and the healer priests of the time began to strive towards finding more practical, physical interventions to restore the health of mind, body (and spirit).

Ancient Greece

The ancient Greek civilisations began to emerge just as the Egyptian age began to fade.  Above all it might be said the Greeks liked to think.  They placed importance on the concept of rational and logical thinking – striving always to understand why things happen – and so under the Ancient Greeks the art of philosophy prospered.  The concepts of harmony, right balance and measure were of central importance to Greek philosophers, and their main aim until the sixth century BC, was understanding physis – an attempt to perceive the essential and true nature of all things.

According to Greek myth, Asclepius, son of the god Apollo and the nymph Coronis, was born from the dead body of his mother.  Asclepius was raised by Chiron, a centaur, who was considered a master of medical practice and herbal medicine. Soon Asclepius surpassed his master’s knowledge and became known as the Greek God of medicine.  Over 200 temples to Asclepius’s were constructed – representing the first known hospitals.  Patients were permitted to rest and to sleep in the temples, where it was believed through dreams and insight they might perceive the presence of the Asclepius – who could provide therapeutic guidance and the ability to recover.

The Ancient Greeks considered the soul (or psyche) to be a moving dynamic force capable of being influenced not only to induce dis-ease, but also to restore harmony.  Human problems, and the physical manifestations of illness, were viewed essentially as spiritual in nature; literally as ‘psychopathology’ (Graham, 1999).  The Greeks were keen observers of feelings and moods, and emotional purging and laughter were viewed as highly therapeutic.  Mythology and Greek theatre were also considered useful and necessary – often used to explain the meaning of otherwise difficult concepts – and to invoke and induce intense emotional responses.  Greek philosophers during this time certainly considered man’s health to lie centrally within the remit of their thinking – with Plato stating:

“The cure of the part should not be attempted without treatment of the whole”.

In essence the Greeks of the time believed the key to maintaining good health lay in achieving a balance between the spiritual and the physical elements of life.  To the Greeks of this period, however, the Gods were still deemed influential, and the Greek temple priests continued to practice a great deal of the ancient knowledge inherited from the Egyptians in their own particular form of medicine.

Mathematics and Rational Medicine 

imageDuring the sixth century BC the influence of Pythagorean philosophy marked the beginning of mathematics and coding – and represents the birth of modern science and linear thinking.  Pythagorean theory influenced Western thinking tremendously simply because mathematics sits at the core of the concepts of exact and measurable truths.

“Greek medicine, generally, formed the basis of Western medical theory until the nineteenth century and Greek medical deontology still exercises a powerful influence upon medical ethics to the present day.” (Longrigg, 1993) 

Within the field of medicine the first indication of the practice of human dissection occurred during the fifth century BC – representing the emergence of the scientific concepts of exploration, analysis, measurement and standardisation in health and medicine.

During the 5th century BC, Hippocrates, commonly regarded as the father of modern medicine, introduced his medical ‘theory of four humors and temperaments’.  According to Hippocrates physical disorders could be viewed as conditions of disharmony existing in the humors of the body.  Hippocrates believed the individual could be affected by many factors including thoughts and emotions; their behaviours; climate; excessive or too little physical activity; water quality and even a lack of sunlight.

Hippocrates therefore believed healing the individual involved attempting to restore equilibrium in the psychology, internal and external environment of the individual.  Hippocrates stated treatment should only occur after consideration of attitude, environmental influences and natural remedies – and he placed worth on the individuals’ ability to self heal, given favourable conditions.  The role of physician according to Hippocrates was therefore one of serving natural laws.

During the mid 5th century BC the Greek philosopher Parmenides proposed physical matter was an indestructible substance made up of tiny dead particles he coined atoms.  The movement of these atoms was assumed by the ancient Greeks to originate from the spiritual – although the matter itself was viewed as somehow different and separate.

Philosophers of the time now began to turn their attention away from the subject of considering physical matter and how it might be connected to human life – and began instead to lean towards more existential, spiritual and ethical considerations.  Scientific thinking would now take responsibility for dissecting and measuring the nature of universal physical matter – including the human body.

Christianity and the Middle Ages

The emergence of Christianity and its subsequent spread across Western Europe delivered an enormous blow to mans innate, ancient connection with his own personal energetic power and intuition.  Man began to be guided towards a belief in one omnipotent God, and the church took authority on his behalf.  Scientists throughout the middle-ages, under the watchful eye of the Christian Church, continued to attempt to explain the existence of God, and the nature of universe, using a standardised framework drawn from the concepts of Greek scientific reasoning.

During this time a real and definite attempt was made by the Church to destroy any movement, group or individual still ingrained with any belief system associated with ancient, esoteric knowledge.  The healers of the day were those infused with the secrets of oral medicinal folk traditions – commonly referred to as witches during the middle-ages.  Evidence stemming from witch trials dating to the time suggests indeed a great deal of the knowledge possessed by these often female healers might be viewed as essentially shamanic in origin.

Scientific Milestones

imageIt was Copernicus (1473-1543) who first proposed the notion that the planets circled the sun, and in doing so challenged Church teachings stating the earth lay at the centre of the universe.  The laws of planetary motion discovered by Kepler (1571-1630) further challenged the deeply established religious view, and the final proof was eventually delivered by Galileo (1564-1642) who demonstrated that the earth did indeed revolve around the sun. Collectively this marked a time of huge collision and separation between science and religion.

Within the realm of health and medicine this period in history also sparked the emergence of what we recognise today as modern medicine.  In 1543, Andreas Vesalius published an important human anatomy book.  In 1628, William Harvey published his research on the circulation of blood in the body, and finally the microscope – an enormously important technological advancement in medicine – was invented in 1670 by Anton van Leeuwenhoek.

Newton’s Influence

Isaac Newton (1643-1727) believed the universe to be a three-dimensional space. An immovable, constant, unchangeable place existing entirely independently of the material objects it contains.  According to Newton changes in the physical world existed in a separate dimension of time, which absolute in nature, flowed in a linear sequence.  Newton proposed small particles existed in this place, and believed gravity to be the force which explained the movement of the particles. Consequently scientific thinking now began to consider the universe, and the very essence of nature itself, as following an unquestionable mechanistic model, with every component of life considered explainable by a cosmic set of fixed rules, governed by absolute mathematical laws and equations.

The Separation of Body and Mind

By the nineteenth century science had become so entrenched in a Newtons’ mechanistic view of the universe, the concept of God had almost become obsolete.  The advent of modern physics, and a growing insistence within the scientific world that all things should be universally agreed upon as objective, physical and factual, left the field of psychology with a quite a dilemma.  Traditionally known for embracing the concepts of consciousness, senses and feelings – elements which ultimately could never be measured objectively – yet anxious to be recognised and listed as a scientific endeavour – the field of psychology turned away from the study of human emotion and psyche, and instead began to concentrate on the objective study of human behaviour (Graham, 1999).

Science and medicine now began to view the physical elements of the individual as existing entirely separately from the mind and psyche.  The diagnosis and treatment of dis-ease and illness within Western medicine has been considered in this somewhat fragmented context since.

Modern Thinking

It was the publishing of Albert Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity in 1905, closely followed by Rutherford’s historic splitting of the atom in 1909, that finally pulled apart the by now established mechanical, clockwork Newtonian view of the world.  According to Einstein time and space were ultimately connected, and four dimensional in essence.  Whereas previously time was considered as fixed and linear – Einstein’s theory stated time was dynamic, able to stretch and move and absolutely and intrinsically linked to space, and indeed to the matter contained within.


imageIt would appear over time individuals have become increasingly disconnected from their own personal experience, and almost entirely passive regarding their health-care.  Conversely science, medicine, doctors and other healthcare workers have been encouraged to adopt a professional stance of detached authority and assumed superior knowledge.

The complex physiological and emotional relationships present within the human body were unfortunately initially judged by early science as deserving no relevant place in fact or the absolute – dismissed almost entirely in favour of a mathematical understanding of man.  Science and the medical profession have become the modern day Gods, and human individuals are now more detached from their own existence and personal responsibility than they have been in perhaps many thousands of years.

“The more specialized doctors become, the more they know about a body part or organ and the less they tend to understand the human being in whom that part or organ resides.” (Mate, 2003).

The separation of mind and body, and indeed man from his wider experiencing, unfortunately dictates man can never truly be perceived, measured or treated as a whole.  As practitioners of reflexology, or indeed any holistic modality, it seems crucial that as we move into the future we are able to retain a blend of practice which retains a truly holistic, multi-dimensional essence.  Twentieth century physics suggests a basic oneness exists within our universe.  These up to date scientific principles suggest we inhabit a far more complex and interactive universe than could ever have been imagined. Perhaps in the future we might come to increasingly accept this concept also applies in the consideration of human health. As Helen Graham (1999) rightly points out:

“A fundamental problem facing contemporary medicine is that of reconciling ordinary descriptions of bodies, health and disease with the idea that the universe and everything in it is an inseparable entity.”

Encouragingly the scientific field of psychoneuroimmunology (PNI) – a relatively young branch of research established during the early 1980s – potentially offers both western medical and holistic researchers alike, a scientific framework from which to better understand the delicate interactions between the mind, brain and body.

Foot massageWhat the Shamans, Ancients, and healers of the Middle Ages might have referred to as personal power – today we call the autonomous, conscious self. Perhaps one thing reflexologists do very well is to help clients to reconnect with their personal power – through touch, support, encouragement and advice? Perhaps too, within modern day complementary therapies, exist many threads connecting our holistic art forms to the health philosophies of the far distant past?


Graham, H. (1999). Complementary Therapies in Context. London: JKP

Longrigg, J. (1993). Greek Rational Medicine. Philosophy and medicine from Alcmaeon to the Alexandrians. Routledge: Oxfordshire

Mate, G. (2003). When the Body Says No. The Hidden Cost of Stress. Toronto: Vintage Canada


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