In a wide-ranging and compelling new book, science journalist Jo Marchant explores whether the mind can heal the body. The question is polarizing: Conventional doctors dismiss the power of the mind as New Age hooey, while alternative medicine advocates are quick to claim miracle cures for whatever ails you. The murky middle ground between these poles is where Marchant lingers.
Inflammation, blood sugar and breathing rate can all influence mood, and it seems mood may influence those processes right back, Marchant argues. Those blurred boundaries cloud Descartes’ old distinction between mind and body, integrating the two so tightly that “it is impossible to consider one without the other,” she writes.
With lively, clear prose, Marchant surveys the evidence for the mind-body connection. One of the most compelling arguments comes from the placebo effect. A surge of the chemical messenger dopamine floods the brains of people with Parkinson’s disease after they receive a placebo, mimicking the effects of a drug, for instance. Placebos can help even when people know they’re taking a fake. After forking over money for inert capsules from an online vendor, Marchant found that the pills eased her headache in 20 minutes. That experience was admittedly nonscientific, but Marchant draws from plenty of studies to make the case that something interesting — and potentially powerful — lurks in placebos (SN: 2/22/14, p. 12).
Throughout Cure, Marchant uses deeply reported stories of patients and researchers to raise questions about the status quo of health care. These stories reveal that simple changes that soothe people’s psychological states may lead to better outcomes. Terminal cancer patients who talked with palliative care specialists focused on quality of remaining life, rather than medical care, had less depression and better experiences than patients who didn’t get such care, a small study found. These patients also lived nearly three months longer. “We are humans, not machines, after all,” Marchant writes. “When we’re receiving medical care, our mental state matters.”
Other research makes the case that the mind is a strong ally in the quest for health: Studies of hypnotherapy for people suffering from irritable bowel syndrome, virtual reality snow worlds for burn victims and comforting talk for women undergoing breast biopsies all make clear that the mind can have a powerful effect on the body. And as Marchant argues, that’s a realization that matters.
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