Psychoneuroimmunology: A Conversation with Dr. Mario Martinez
Psychoneuroimmunology is a scientific effort to break down the wall between the mind and the body. But there is something that rat studies of the immune and endocrine features of emotional states can’t show us: cultural context and shared beliefs.
Join me in conversation with Dr. Mario Martinez where we deconstruct some assumptions around mind-body medicine and work to progress the paradigm so that illness and symptoms can take on the personal meaning necessary for true and lasting healing.
- Why forgiveness is more complicated than it sounds
- About the three archetypal wounds
- Why we continue to do things we know are bad for us
- How to set limits with people in your life who are invested in your illness
- Simple meditation techniques to embody your emotions and change your beliefs
- Why taking control over your health is not the same as blaming yourself
- What Dr. Martinez means by this provocative quote:
“Replacing the comfort of known misery with the discomfort of unknown joy can be one of the main obstacles on your path to wellness.”
Full Video Transcript
Dr. Kelly Brogan: Hi, everyone. I am so thrilled to have the opportunity to talk today to Dr. Mario Martinez. I want to tell you a little bit about him actually directly from his own website because I think it’s the most powerful introduction there could be. It’s so provocative.
So, Dr. Martinez is a clinical neuropsychologist. And in 1988, he developed his theory of BioCognitive Science which is based on research that demonstrates how thoughts and their biological expression co-emerge within a cultural history.
So, I’d like to spend a little bit of time deconstructing that because this is music to my ears.
I was joking with you that we connected several years ago actually. I read your book at that time, The Mind Body Code. I remember enjoying it and finding it to be important.
But I just, personally, wasn’t ready for the profound nature of your message. I had to move through many layers of stripping, I guess, my own blocks and embracing a kind of complexity that you have an incredible handle on, such that in re-reading the book just a couple of weeks ago, I was telling you that I was on a train and I couldn’t even read it because I didn’t have a pen with me. I’ve underlined almost the entire book. The experience of reading it without a pen was so painful that I chose to hop on my computer instead.
So, it’s a great pleasure. I’d love to explore some of the topics that you, I believe, have pioneered.
And while we both have been deep in the literature referred to as psychoneuroimmunology—and many of the people listening are familiar with that term I’m sure—there is something missing in the research that looks to move beyond the Cartesian mind-body dualism.
It’s wonderful that that research has existed for two decades. But there’s still something missing. And I think that’s really what you bring to the table.
I want to read a couple of quotes from your book—one, just to sort of launch us into your work. You refer to this as the “mind-body code.” And we’re going to talk about what that is. But you said:
The Mind Body Code is the language you learn from your culture that enables you to interpret your world, shape your self-concept and find meaning in what you do.
So, what you’re telling us, in essence, is that we have to start to pay attention to cultural context. The way I think about it is like, okay, we’re finally waking up and realizing we’re not asleep, that we’re in a room. But then we have to realize that the room is in a house, and that the house is in a neighborhood, and the neighborhood is in a town, it was in a country, it’s in a planet. So, you’re sort of helping us to zoom out.
And more than just giving us the language to ascribe meaning to our illnesses and symptoms, you’re helping us to engage in pathways to change. You would think, “These are so embedded. What do we do about it?”
So, I’d love to hear a little bit from you by way of an introduction about how and why you ever wanted to pursue something beyond just this mind-body concept (which has now become so pervasive that it’s almost a cliché term).
Why did you want to move beyond there being just a relevance to the mind and the body as a neuropsychologist?
Dr. Mario Martinez: Thank you for having me. I’m a fan.
Well, it was moving out of frustration. What I learned in neuropsychology was the … of the brain. You understand this in one area. This is how you get the limitations.
But I wanted to know what are the horizons of the brain when it’s normal. So I thought that I should study the people that are best at it which are the centenarians, but healthy centenarians—people who were over a hundred, but who were healthy, cognitively intact, and some of them, living alone—and then, developing a theory from there.
But I came in with the thinking that, “Okay, it’s going to be genetics. That’s it! They have a genetic endowment. And that’s how it is.”
Well, after studying many, many in five continents, I found that only 20% is genetic. The rest is what I call the cultural or the bio-cultural components of it.
So, I had to develop a whole theory, a whole paradigm, to be able to understand them because, as you’ve said, the Cartesian does not at all, the reductionist does not at all. I had to come up with the Mind Body Code—and then, later, of course, the Mind-Body Self—to see how the culture affects it.
But with Mind Body Code, the thinking was that I asked myself, “What is it that if people know—they’re intelligent, very functional people. They know that they’re doing something that’s hurting them, and they keep doing it. Why is it that the intellectual doesn’t work?”
And what I found was that there are some very embedded things in the person’s consciousness that, actually, even if they wanted, they couldn’t because they learn in clusters.
So, for example—the best way to explain biocognition is with examples—if you do an affirmation and you say, “I’m a good person. I’m a good person,” it’s not going to do anything. You have a whole set of archives that tell you you’re not a good person. If you’re trying to be a good person, that means that you don’t think you are.
So, the brain needs evidence. That brain needs evidence. The neural maps cannot change intellectually because you have a cluster. The way to explain it I think is to—okay, something happened to you, let’s say, that made you feel unworthy. We store the information, the cognition that was happening, what the immune system was in at the time, what the nervous system was in, what the endocrine system was in and the context. That’s stored in different parts of the brain and the body in a fractal way.
Then all of a sudden, you want to change that and say, “Okay, I’m not a bad person anymore. I’m good.” That’s only taking a piece of the cluster, and it’s not taking the rest of the cluster. So therefore, it doesn’t work.
So, how can you do it? Very simple. I spent about 15 years trying to create some complexity to actually applicable things.
Well, you can say, “Alright, I’m a good person” like a mantra. “I’m a good person.” And what will happen is then you’ll have to embody. You have to pay attention to what the body is saying. And you’ll find that there’s some dissonance.
You’re going to feel some tension around your chest or some tension around your stomach. Your body is saying, “This is not coherent. My bio-informational field says that I’m not a good person, yet you’re telling me I’m a good person.”
So, what you do is you pay attention.
“I’m a good person.”
And you get that tension.
And then, the Mind-Body Code to get rid of that is not by saying “I don’t want to be tense by observation/observing.” Observation is the Mind Body Code to reduce and relieve something, but not really with an intention. I’m just observing what’s going on like watching a cloud. And that’s the Mind Body Code to release it.
You release it. And then you say, “I’m a good person” again. And you do it.
Then you have to go to your archives that say, “Since you have bad person archives, you also have good person archives,” and you go through the memories.
And you do this under a level of contemplativeness or relaxation, so your brain turns off.
You say, “Okay, when was I a good person?” And you can go back as far as you want to. “Oh, I remember. When I was 15, I was really good. I did something really good.”
You bring it in and you embody that.
“What do I feel? What’s the signature for a good person? What’s the signature for a bad person?”
And you keep doing that over and over. And the exalted emotions, the more evolved emotions, will always, always overcome the limited emotions of fear.
So, one, we’ll re-contextualize. But then you don’t stop there. Then you say, “Okay, now, how can I create evidence, more evidence, that I’m a good person?” And for that day, you make a commitment that you’re going to do things that you consider to be good, and you embody it.
And the last part—see how complicated it is—the last part, you look at the co-authors, the people that created that reality, that are still buying into you not being a good person.
If somebody says to you, “Well, you’re not good with directions,” and you buy it, and then one day, you’re good with directions, and you say to your co-author, “Hey, I really find myself around well,” “Nah, you’re just lucky. You’re not good with directions,” they bring you right back, those co-authors, you … with them, and then you go to the co-authors and you say, “You know, I really feel I’m a good person.” That person says, “You are! You are a good person. I see many good things in you.”
Those are the subcultures of wellness that you create.
So, just to change one thought, look at all you have to go through, but it’s very functional even though …
Dr. Kelly Brogan: I mean, to me, this is profound. You were speaking about how—I certainly have stumbled into a methodology for healing that seems to be predicated on physical healing first before spiritual exploration. And part of why I think that can sometimes be important is just to cultivate that experience you’re talking about, of trust in the body, identification with a body that can heal, can change.
So, I talk about how I feel it’s important to sort of quiet symptoms of indigestion or headache or fatigue, so that you actually have a sensory relationship with your body and can begin to do this kind of work of truly coming into reunion with it.
But why I find your work so profound is because we were talking earlier and you were saying that you’ve resolved symptoms of fibromyalgia in the space of a month and a half. And to me, that just goes to show that there’s a core thread that these different methodologies share. And it seems like that thread has a whole lot more to do with mindset and deeply embedded beliefs than it has to do even with what you’re doing.
Even the ritualistic procedures you’ve come up with or I’ve come up with, it seems like perhaps healing modalities that has lasting, transformative effects, maybe what they have in common is a means and a method to shift our mindset.
And what I love about what you offer is that you create an entire language to support this process.
So, I wonder if you can talk to us a bit about this idea of a cultural editor and this notion of co-authors. I think to many of us, we understand that different cultures are different and they have different approaches. But just how different are these different cultural perspectives? And how relevant is that to our belief system?
It’s far beyond what you believe about health, wellness and illness. It’s really about the beliefs that have been handed to you and that are maintained by the culture that you’re in, right?
Dr. Mario Martinez: Yes, yes. Well, if you talk to a reductionist scientist, and you say, “Look, a thought can change biology,” they’re going to say, “Oh, come on! You mean you’re going to talk to the cell?” No, you can’t. But here’s the developmental process that you can see why it happens.
We’re pre-designed—we’re not programmed because we’re not machines—we’re pre-designed to pay very much attention to the cultural editors. And the cultural editors are people that are given power by the culture in a context—a doctor in a hospital, a mother at home, a father at home, a clergy. We’re pre-designed for that.
So, what’s the first thing that we do? We’re hungry, and it hurts. And you have a cluster of psychoneuroimmunology. You have emotions that have hormones, and you have the nervous system. In that cluster, you’re hungry.
Then you see a breast or you see a bottle. And somehow, that’s relieved. That’s another cluster of endorphins and oxytocin and all these other things. And these are clusters that are archived.
It’s pre-language. You don’t have a language. But babies, “Oh, that’s a breast. This is a bottle. And this is mother. Pay a lot of attention to mother.” Then you go to a teacher, and you go to another one.
And what happens then is any time that you have a cultural editor, you will have either a placebo or a nocebo effect. You either have an effect that is seen or one that is negative.
For example, if you were told, “Well, you have six months to live,” that’s terrible to say because that’s an average turning into a sentence.
So, the co-authors are the people that actually co-create a reality. We can’t create a reality in a vacuum. We have to have a co-creation of the reality.
And it’s relative because we know that there are men because there are women. So it’s a relative kind of thing. And I think that the brain has what I call an “incomplete relativeness.” The reason is so that it doesn’t have to update the software.
We haven’t updated our software for 80,000 years. That’s even better than the Apple that I love. Why? Because the brain, if you look at it—analogy, because it’s not a computer. But if you look at it as a computer, thoughts and emotions are the software, the hardware is the body and the brain. Well, we’re a computer that can actually change the hardware with the software. There’s no computer that can do that.
For example, in London, in other places, they have street names that are very hard to find. It’s not 1st street, 2nd street. So you’d have to really, really learn and contextualize that information. And the part of the brain that deals with that is the hippocampus.
So, what happens with taxi drivers? They have a bigger hippocampus than other people because they develop it.
So, you see, the software, the outside, the epigenetics can change the brain. That’s good news.
Dr. Kelly Brogan: It’s really a source of empowerment.
Dr. Mario Martinez: It is…
Dr. Kelly Brogan: I think that’s what most of us I think grapple with. When you suggest that this change is possible, all of a sudden, there is an indictment of an entire medical paradigm that is invested in the gene model of illness. And implicit in that is that “it’s not your fault, there’s nothing you can do about it, and thank God for pharma.”
So, what you’re suggesting—and of course, what I’ve been passionate about for many years—is that this change is possible, but there is a radical responsibility that has to be taken for your experience in order to engage that change.
And in fact, you talk about this notion of belief horizon. I love that concept. There is a discomfort that comes with bumping up against the limits of your belief system. And it’s actually in that confusion; I think you say, it’s sort of in that discomfort that real change has the opportunity to take place.
So, the process is not meant to be easy. It’s not easy.
Dr. Mario Martinez: Well, very complex. And I think that, also, without looking—because you’re right, this is an extremely important point that you bring up about the helplessness and the fear of blaming yourself. And not everybody wants to change. There are people that don’t want to change. Of course, the genetic predisposition for everything is there. But it’s only predisposition. It’s not genetic sentencing.
The way that I look at it is that an illness, at the beginning, has a function. And cultures love to support illnesses.
If you say, “I’m going for a walk,” and somebody says, “Ah, let’s go to the movies,” and you say, “No, I’m going for a walk,” “Come on! Let’s go to the movies.”
But if you say you have a migraine, it’s okay, you don’t have to go. You get a pass.
So, illness is a really powerful passport.
So then, what happens, I think any illness with different degrees, has two functions: one, to avoid something you don’t want to do; and the second which is even more subtle, to avoid something you don’t want to do because you don’t feel worthy of it. So, it can be with good things.
You see a lot of people sabotaging. They work hard all their lives, and they go to Florida to watch the sunset, and six weeks later, cancer or dementia. That’s not biologically coherent.
So, it has those two functions. And you want to be able to look at it without blaming yourself. “Okay, if I didn’t have this illness, what could I do that I want? And if I didn’t have this illness, what would I have to do that I don’t want to do?” And that’s when you get the co-authors and…
And again, it’s not a conscious process. You don’t have to blame yourself. The cultures teach you to become powerful with illness and powerful with helplessness. So therefore, you have to become an outlier.
An outlier? Now, here’s what happens when you become an outlier. The culture within the pale will punish you in three ways—they’ll either abandon you, they’ll betray you, or they’ll shame you. So you have to be aware of that.
I’ve worked with a lot of country music stars … And many of them, when they get out of the pale, they go beyond the pale—and that’s a negative connotation. In my case, going beyond the pale is great.
So, they’ll go … , “Oh, we love you! We saw you on this and that.”
After a while, then the implicit thing is that “if he could do it, if she could do it, I can too. So therefore, I have to bring him down.”
And then, they say something like, “Oh, so you finally had time to see us. You’re too big now for us.” And they start beating them, beating them, beating them.
Some of them, what they’ll do is they’ll lose their money with bad investments, they go on to drugs and alcohol. And then they come back. Then the culture loves them. “I told you, you shouldn’t go to national. You should stay with us here. We will take care of you.” So, you see, these are powerful, powerful forces that are working against you. But once you know them, then you give people permission not to like you. And that’s the key to assertiveness I think.
Dr. Kelly Brogan: So, briefly, what you’re depicting is that there is a tremendous courage required to pursue a kind of healing that would allow you to fully manifest your gifts, your purpose, your creativity, that there is a resistance that we have to move past or through.
Dr. Mario Martinez: Yes.
Dr. Kelly Brogan: I think you referenced it just now, but I want to make sure that people have taken this in because I find it incredibly powerful to have this language. You talked about these archetypal wounds that are potentially inflicted by different cultural settings I guess. There’s abandonment, shame and betrayal. And sometimes in some people, one of those wounds may be more dominant as a driver of behavior than another.
And you also talk about having complimentary sort of healing fields. Can you just elaborate on that a little bit?
Dr. Mario Martinez: Yes. The way to look at these three wounds, they even have I think a second neurological component to them. Let’s start with abandonment which is the most primitive.
Abandonment, if you abandon a child, they die. You can’t shame a child until they can see themselves in the mirror and say, “That’s me.” If they don’t have a me, you can’t shame them.
And then, the most sophisticated is of course the betrayal.
But abandonment initially feels cold. You have a retraction of your vascular system and you feel cold. It’s a protection against some kind of a fight-or-flight kind of thing. You feel cold and you feel a tremendous sense of isolation. The main emotion is isolation, but it’s cold. There’s a psychoneuroimmunological component going with that.
Then shame feels hot. It’s different. It feels hot and you feel like you want the earth to swallow you. And shame is the most studied—and it causes inflammation.
Then betrayal is also hot, but anger is the emotion. Betrayal is basically tricked, you’ve been tricked. “I’ll give you this if you do this. Oops, I’m not going to give it to you.” You can do it to a child, and they’ll cry and they’ll get angry. They’re not going to be ashamed. They’re going to be angry.
But the healing fields—the good news—the healing fields of abandonment is commitment consciousness to you, commitment to you. Shame is honor consciousness to you. And betrayal is loyalty consciousness to you.
And we know that especially the shame causes inflammation. So now, I’m working with fibromyalgia and with rheumatoid arthritis using honor as an anti-inflammatory agent. That’s pretty powerful stuff to reduce the interleukin and tumor necrosis factor and all those kinds of things.
And I’ll give you an example how to apply it. People think that, “Well, you have to be honored by someone,” no!
Let’s say you’re an executive and you go into a board meeting and somebody says, “You’re late,” and somebody says, “Well, I can always count on you on being late,” and all of a sudden, you feel this overwhelming sense of anger (because later, as an adult, you get angry with all three, but not initially).
So, you feel this anger and overwhelming feeling. And you know that you’re dumping your history of the wound on the moment.
So, you stop, you embody it. “Where do I feel this? Okay, my chest is really tense right now. Take a deep breath. What is the honorable thing that I need to do right now for me?”
And it could be that you’re going to wait until the meeting was over to talk to this person or you could say, “Look, I’m late, but I think that we need to talk later because this is not acceptable,” or whatever you consider to be honorable.
And immediately, you’re changing the psychoneuroimmunology of the inflammation to something that is empowering. It’s anti-inflammatory.
We’ve been able to show it clinically. But we’re beginning to study it now at the immunological level, so we can actually measure the immunological change.
So, those are examples of what you can do.
And many illnesses, as you know very well (and you argue correctly), are inflammatory—including depression. It’s pro-inflammatory … So it’s good news.
Dr. Kelly Brogan: You had a very, I think, provocative almost sort of opinion on forgiveness too I read, which I was reminded of even in that example where, I would say, the vast majority of the women that I work with have histories of trauma and sexual abuse that’s sometimes really extraordinarily violent and seemingly life-derailing.
And this notion of being thankful to their perpetrators to be able to grow from the experience is…
Dr. Mario Martinez: Yes, yes.
Dr. Kelly Brogan: They can’t access that as not helpful even if it sounds like a spiritually high vibration exercise.
So, you started turning it on its head. And again, you re-center the person. You say there’s a way to actually express gratitude to yourself as a means of releasing or forgiving, right?
Dr. Mario Martinez: Yes. Yes, yes. I’m glad you brought that up because that’s a complex one that I, also, out of frustration—people would say I’m crazy and I forgive. It doesn’t work that way.
I think what happens is that if you look at it, we’re a bioinformationa field. There’s a world out there, and then there’s that world that we weave. And we have to resolve it within that world, not outside of that world.
There was an experiment that was done where they had women go to the perpetrators in person—and you know, sociopaths will say anything that you want to hear. They would hug them. And after they’d get angry with them, they would hug them and “I forgive you.” Six weeks later, panic attacks and all kinds of problems because it wasn’t real.
And the way they stopped it is that there was a sociopath who was probably more honest than the others. She says, “So what do you have to say for yourself?” He said, “Well, that when I get out, I’m going to rape you again.” And all of the sudden, she gets angry and all of that forgiving was done. So it doesn’t work.
So, the way that I look at it, I see forgiveness as a liberating act of self-love.
Dr. Mario Martinez: Hmmm… I love that.
Dr. Kelly Brogan: It has nothing to do with the other person. In fact, the other person continues to be a perpetrator. You can have forgiveness with reconciliation or not.
And you never, never thank the person. As you’ve said, you never thank the person for what they did. They continue to be what they are. But what you do is you find out what wound did this perpetrator caused because you have to know how to fix it. What bacteria, what antibiotics? Same thing.
Alright! So, let’s say shame. “This person disempowered me with shame, and I have to empower myself with honor.” But what you do is you do the technique under a level of contemplativeness. And then you bring out the time when it happened. The person is going to feel the shame. You embody it—the same technique, you embody it. Then after you embody it, you breathe to it, and you pay attention to it, so it’ll go.
When it goes on its own, then you bring a situation of honor that has nothing to do with the perpetration, nothing. It’s just honor consciousness. You bring honor consciousness and you experience it.
Once you experience that, I call that the alpha event which is “I feel that although I have been hurt, I continue to be empowered. I’m still an empowered person.” Nothing to do with the perpetration! And that is the first. That’s the author.
The omega event is when you feel gratitude for you having the capacity to be empowered with honor. And gratitude is what resolved the process. Gratitude is an exalted emotion that allows you to bring in and assimilate whatever you want to assimilate—and cleans it out.
I’ve worked with people that had happened for 40 years—sexual abuse, concentration camps. It works, but you have to be willing to get out of victimhood because that’s a very powerful thing—and for the co-authors that support victimhood.
What will you have to give up? “Well, I can’t talk about my sexual abuse anymore as a way of manipulating people.” So, there’s a getting up. The gain is that you begin to see people empowered and you don’t have co-authors anymore that say, “Hey, Kelly, how are you doing? So, how are you feeling today about the abuse?”, you know that kind of “It’s so good to see you. I’m so glad you’re fine.” That’s the forgiveness.
And I did a workshop in Ireland. And the most senior came over later saying, “You know, I’m so glad you did this because we tell people to forgive theologically and religiously, but we don’t give them tools. We don’t teach them how to do it.”
Dr. Kelly Brogan: Yes. Ah, I love this because, as a science junkie, you really hit all those buttons for me, where there is a rich scientific literature that speaks to the relevance of meaning, human meaning, around illness that we’ve only ever been told is a random mishap of your genetics and potentially your circumstances in life, that it’s just bad luck and you just deal with it.
So, what you’re offering is not only the science to support a more complex narrative—and it is complex. I find it deeply poetic actually. It is complex. But you’re also offering a totally self-contained—I mean, I’m sure you work with patients all the time and teach people all the time. But the truth is you could read your book, learn the methodologies and do this yourself.
Dr. Mario Martinez: I think so, yes.
Dr. Kelly Brogan: It could potentially be an exercise in self-healing if you weren’t ready. And the readiness, of course, is all. That’s true for any of these interventions.
Dr. Mario Martinez: And what I suggest is to work initially with a healthcare practitioner. And when you feel like you can do it on your own, then you pull out, so that you don’t have therapy for the rest of your life.
All you have to do is stop and breathe and notice where you’re experiencing it. And then, get out and look at all the curiosity that you can. It becomes incompatible with the compulsion.
You do that four or five or six times, and you get rid of it. It’s incredibly powerful by just going into the mindfulness curiosity model.
Dr. Kelly Brogan: Right! It’s almost like, seemingly, the message in there is that when you remember you’re connected to something bigger, it’s going to be overly preoccupied with ingratitude on some level, right?
Dr. Mario Martinez: Exactly! That’s the meaning again coming in.
Dr. Kelly Brogan: Yes.
Dr. Mario Martinez: Yeah, absolutely. That’s really beautiful, the way you express it. That’s exactly what’s going on I think.
Dr. Kelly Brogan: That’s powerful. So, I want to leave people with a quote from your book that I find so deeply true. And then, well, to be continued. You say:
Replacing the comfort of known misery with the discomfort of unknown joy can be one of the main obstacles on your path to wellness.
I find that over and over again in my experience. People want to move closer to that experience and joy. They feel entitled to it. They know it’s out there. And they have a deep, deep primal desire for it. But the resistance is so powerful. And we think all sorts of excuses for why it’s not the time and how it’s valuable to us to justify our victimhood and why our illness is meaningful.
We make all sorts of excuses and it’s perhaps simply because this joy is such an unknown quantity to us. And the unknown, we’ve only ever been taught to be afraid of it rather than curious.
So, I love that, “the comfort of misery to be replaced with the discomfort of joy.” There are so many embedded paradoxes in there, but it really is a very deep truth to sit with and ask yourself, “Are you ready to move into the potential discomfort of that tremendous, exalted emotion?”
I believe so many of us are. And so I want to thank you for lighting that path. You’re just…
Dr. Mario Martinez: My pleasure!
Dr. Kelly Brogan: You’re just incredibly brilliant-minded. And you have a huge heart. I’m so grateful.
Dr. Mario Martinez: And thank you for your work. You’re doing beautiful work. I want to thank you for that also.
Dr. Kelly Brogan: Wow! We’re speaking the same language. We’re preaching to the choir here.
Thank you so much. And to be continued… thank you.
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