A meticulously researched book about the healing power of the mind has much to offer, but with quacks aplenty we shouldn't abandon proper scepticism.
BANG! You’re startled by a loud noise. Instantly you’re fully alert and looking round for danger, heart racing. Or you see something erotic, and your body optimistically readies itself for intercourse. These simple observations are incontrovertible proof that our state of mind has a powerful effect on our bodies – a basic truth that we have ignored for too long, says science writer Jo Marchant.
Her book on this began as an article that appeared in New Scientist in August 2011. Marchant, a former colleague, had emailed me a few months earlier. Would I be interested in running a story about how our minds influence our health, and how we can harness these effects to help ourselves. “These areas have always been seen as a bit too close to pseudoscience,” she wrote, “but studies are now starting to show clear physical effects and pin down mechanisms.” It was one of those rare proposals that pretty much had me at hello.
Even if you read that piece, you will find Cure: A journey into the science of mind over body fascinating and thought-provoking. Marchant has travelled extensively around Europe and the US, talking to health workers and ordinary folk, to produce this meticulously researched book. Her bold aim: to rescue the idea that our minds influence our health from the clutches of pseudoscience and restore it to its proper place at the heart of conventional medicine.
“A lot of alternative therapies failed to show benefit in trials… some can be harmful, even deadly“
The first section covers how doctors can exploit the power of our minds to make us feel better, lower drug doses and in a few cases, such as irritable bowel syndrome and chronic fatigue syndrome, actually make us better. The evidence that methods such as hypnosis and virtual reality can greatly reduce pain and provide an alternative to addictive drugs is particularly compelling. There’s a very clear message for doctors: how patients feel really matters.
The second part of the book looks at things we can do ourselves, such as mindfulness, biofeedback and even – gasp – spirituality. These techniques cannot magically cure serious disorders and diseases, but there is evidence that they can help us feel better and reduce our chances of developing stress-related ills such as heart disorders.
What’s missing for me are the negative studies. A lot of “feel-good” alternative therapies have failed to show any benefit in scientific trials and some can be harmful, even deadly. There are also hordes of quacks out to exploit sick people. Marchant does touch on this briefly in the final pages, but she’s far too polite, and perhaps too reluctant to introduce any discord into this positive book.
That said, Cure is a much-needed counter to a reductionist medical culture that ignores anything that doesn’t show up in a scan. “Taking account of the mind in health is actually a more scientific and evidence-based approach than relying ever more heavily on physical interventions and drugs,” Marchant concludes.
Cure should be compulsory reading for all young doctors. And reading it might just turn out to be good for your body as well as for your mind.