‘The human body is the intersection between personal and population change’

We hear from psychologist Kimberley Wilson about her radio programme / podcast with Dr Xand van Tulleken.

How did you come up with the idea? Was it medically or psychologically driven?
The idea come out of the question ‘Can humans change?’ especially given how much and how suddenly life across the planet has changed over the last year. As a practitioner psychologist I am inherently optimistic about our capacity to change. It’s not easy, of course, but I think it can and does happen. I was interested and a little surprised to hear that Xand, as a medical doctor, was much more pessimistic about whether humans can change. From his perspective he had advised people on the importance of, for example, smoking cessation and seen little change. We thought it would be interesting to explore the nature of change from our personal and professional positions.

The human body is the intersection between personal and population change. In order for groups or systems to transform, there has to be alteration on an individual level. What could we learn about the change that might be happening inside each one of us, and what would that tell us about broader societal change?

You and Dr Xand seem to get on very well; did you know each other before this or were you brought together to do it? What do you think working together on it brings to the podcast?
Xand and I met working on a programme for Channel 4 at the start of lockdown (Coronavirus: How to Isolate Yourself). When making TV there can be a lot of waiting around so we had a chance to talk and just got on really well. When the opportunity to work together on the podcast arose it seemed like a fun and fitting project given some of the previous conversations we had had.

What do you hope people will get out of the series?
Lots! Foremost, I hope listeners develop a deeper knowledge and respect for their brains. It’s an enduring artifact of Cartesian thought that the physical brain is still subject to extensive neglect, even in psychology. We think about the mind and mental life as distinct from the organ that underlies those functions. It’s very strange, outmoded and unhelpful. Many of the episodes touch on the profound impact the brain has on the body such as in takotsubo cardiomyopathy in the Heart episode. We need to think about the brain and its needs much more.

Relatedly, I’d like people to appreciate their bodies more. We tend to objectify the body, valuing it only for how it looks. But from deep sea divers to contortionists your body is incredible and, I think, we’d all be so much better off if we were taught how to love and care for it before media gets the chance to teach us to hate it.

What’s your favourite body part, psychologically speaking?
It’s the brain but I am also exceedingly fond of the vagus nerve, the main structural component of the gut-brain axis.

What felt the most cutting edge to discuss?
Using modified HIV to reprogramme immune cells to treat cancer sounds like science-fiction. It’s just utterly incredible to think of the many decades of research in disparate fields that come together to make CAR T-Cell therapy a reality. I find it life-affirming. And the potential role of the gut, immune system and the body in general in the aetiology and progression of common mental health disorders (and neurodegeneration) promises to change everything we thought we knew about how the brain works. I just hope as a profession we’ll have sufficient humility to be able to hear it.

What needs to change in this area, e.g. should psychologists know more about the biology of the body?
Of course. Other than a bit of neuroanatomy at undergrad level the brain actually gets very little consideration in applied psychology, let alone the rest of the body. We continue to work under a 400-year-old philosophical proposition that the mind somehow functions independently of the rest of the organism. How could that possibly be? For starters the brain is made of nutrients that can only be attained through the diet – so diet, nutrition, digestion, absorption – and barriers to those processes – have a direct impact on the physical structure of the brain. Nutrients like calcium, iron and vitamin B6 are co-factors for serotonin synthesis. But these biological fundamentals don’t feature when we are thinking about mental illness. By leaving the body out of the conversation on mental health and illness we inevitably miss identifying important predisposing and perpetuating factors and, by extension, treatment opportunities.

Should medics know more about the psychology of the mind? Is this even taught anywhere, or did you feel you were doing something that’s not been done before?
Yes, they should. We need to move away from thinking and practice that considers anything that goes awry from the neck up as unrelated to anything from the neck down. We need more cross-pollination in training, research, hospitals, conferences and care teams. We need to ditch Descartes and start treating the whole person. It’s why I call it ‘Whole Body Mental Health’

Any lessons / advice for other psychologists producing podcasts?
I host two different podcasts; my own one Stronger Minds, which is a one-woman project and Made of Stronger Stuff, which as a BBC Sounds/R4 programme has a much higher production value! That said I think a couple of principles do generalise:

  • Care about what you talk about. Audiences, in my experience, respond to the host’s own interest and enthusiasm.
  • Be well-researched – as health professionals using these platforms it is our responsibility to make sure the information we share is up-to-date, accurate and balanced.

Made of Stronger Stuff is available now.

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