over matter: Does the mind matter?
course title alone is enough to scare away the slacker and the
faint of heart: "Psychoneuroimmunology." It doesn't help that
on the first day Martha McClintock, who co-teaches the newly developed
undergraduate course with JosÚ Quintans, comments that the name
should really be "Psychosocialneuroendocrinimmunology."
A glance around the room sees already uneasy expressions become
concerned, and those who entered the room concerned begin to twitch
Picking up on the apprehensive vibes, Quintans leans against the
chalkboard while McClintock sits on the corner of the instructor's
desk, both coming across as likable parents with whom a teenager
wouldn't be embarrassed to be seen at the mall. They assure the
students in warm tones that although a great deal will be expected
of them, they are prepared for the task.
is like an advanced graduate course or a faculty seminar," says
McClintock, a psychologist who heads up Chicago's Institute for
Mind and Biology. "But because you're wonderful University of
Chicago students, in my experience over the years, you are entirely
up to this kind of intellectual endeavor." Quintans, the master
of the Biological Sciences Collegiate Division, chimes in, "We're
going to use you to help us learn to analyze this enormous field."
of the students maintain their worried expressions, still unable
to break the broad-themed course down into a one-sentence description,
but most will be back for the second class. Even though the registration
is capped at 24 students, the 40-seat room, tucked away in a corner
of the Donnelley Biological Sciences Learning Center, is filled
to capacity, with a dozen or so stragglers lining the back wall,
all making mental notes to arrive early to the next session. The
waiting list is 50 names deep.
are somewhat overwhelmed by the numbers of interested students,"
says Quintans. But he shouldn't be too surprised. It is rare to
see such a class among an institution's course offerings because
relatively little is known about the intersection of mind and
body and because the subject matter does not fit neatly into either
the social or biological sciences. The professors believe that
this is one of the first such courses in the country designed
known as "PNI"-is a young field that encompasses psychology, neuroscience,
endocrinology, immunology, and social behavior. Developed in the
1970s by University of Rochester Medical Center psychiatrist Robert
Ader, who appears as a guest speaker in the Chicago course, PNI
studies the connection between the brain and the immune system.
In theory, the consequence of this link is that psychological
experiences such as stress and anxiety can influence immune function,
which in turn may have an effect on the course of a disease.
listened politely," Ader once recalled of the initial reaction
to his work in PNI, "but I did not have much luck in generating
any interest in this hypothesis." Over the past 20 years, however,
as advances in neuroscience brought the field into the modern
age, scientists began to take more seriously the notion of a causal
link between the mind and the immune system. Today, as the prominent
research journals publish PNI studies and the U. S. Public Health
Service funds hundreds of research grants in the area each year,
the field is considered by many to be cutting-edge medicine.
is an adventure for both Dr. Quintans and myself," McClintock
confides to the students. "And it is going to be really exciting
to take on one of the big questions that's facing not only science,
but creating political, social, and economic questions as well,
because it has to do with how those social and psychological factors
may affect risk for disease, and how certain diseases are more
common in certain social, psychological, and epidemiological subgroups."
an example, McClintock describes a recent discovery in the field
of animal behavior. Researchers have found that when male mice
are fighting, the subordinate mice change their hormonal and immune
profiles in anticipation of a wound. They are not reacting to
a wound that has already been inflicted-rather, there's something
about knowing they are likely to receive a wound that enables
them to prepare their immune systems to deal with a potential
injury. "Less dominant males, who are less likely to be wounded,
don't do that," says McClintock excitedly. "They have a completely
different strategy. This takes animal models out of the realm
of strict behaviorism-we're talking about anticipation and changing
advances in neuroscience brought the field into the modern
age, scientists began to take more seriously the notion
of a causal link between the mind and the immune system.
Today PNI is considered by many to be cutting-edge medicine.
am a biopsychologist by training," she adds, "interested in mind-body
interactions. Most people in my field look at neuromechanisms
as behavior and leave it at that. What I'm interested in is broadening
the biology to include the immune system and the endocrine system-and
at the psychological level, at which I am really trained, I'm
interested not only in behavior, but also in the mind and belief
and feeling and social interactions, and I believe this is applicable
to animals as well as to people."
immune system is a huge system," says Quintans. "And so is the
central nervous system and the peripheral nervous system. Just
by virtue of the fact that they are complex systems, there's going
to be a bit of overlap, and in psychoneuroimmunology the goal
has always been to make meaning out of the overlap as either unavoidable
coincidence or one that actually has some evolutionary purpose
first question has been answered (according to the immutable laws
of undergraduate psychology, students who walk into a class for
the first time want two questions answered as soon as possible:
what is this course about, and what is expected of me?). Pens
scribble furiously to record the variety of disciplines involved
in this project, while one industrious student in the second row
glances down at her tape recorder to make sure it is still rolling,
as if to say, "Did you get all that?"
is the first to broach the second question. "For every class you
will submit a question based on the readings. The idea is to train
you to write a good synthetic question-ideally one that covers
at least two of the readings and synthesizes them into a critical
form-to write a conceptual question that could be a basis for
class discussion. The questions and class discussion are an essential
part of this class."
student in the third row asks about the weekly assignment: "How
long do you want our responses to be?"
don't want responses," says McClin- tock. "We want good questions.
You can even ask a question you think you have a good answer to,
and we'll discuss it in class. But just focus on formulating a
students take their assignment seriously, and the following week
McClintock walks into class holding several dozen e-mail printouts
bearing questions like "How can the microflora hypothesis be valid
given what we know about the process of urine?" and "If the experimental
environment has little resemblance to the natural environment,
how are the results accurately interpreted?"
questions send the class into rounds of discussion and problem
solving, but the professors want less factual queries and more
synthetic thinking. The final assignment for the course will be
a synthetic and critical essay, due at the end of the quarter,
in which students will respond to the question, "What is a big
question and what advances have we made to achieve answers to
that time comes, though, the students spend the class periods
discussing the questions that they've prepared. At the end of
each session, designated students lead their classmates in closing
discussion of the assigned readings. Since the readings come from
a diverse array of fields that are rarely brought together in
the classroom, two students operating as discussion leaders synthesize
the material, showing how the readings are related, and thus drawing
connections between the fields. Two more students act as commentators,
critiquing the discussion itself to help their classmates examine
the questions they are asking. "The purpose of the course is to
really try to teach ourselves and learn and explore in this field,"
McClintock says. "I think we can be trained at all levels, and
even in the profession of science, to be critical, to take the
role of the commentator." -