Cure: A Journey into the Science of Mind over Body
by Jo Marchant
The connection between mind and body during illness has long been at the center of a hot debate between the scientific and lay community, especially in Western medicine. Opinions tend to the extremes. Medical convention usually downplays the effect of the mind on healing. On the other end, New-Age nature babies babble about auras and essences. (Commune with the Earth Mother, and while you’re at it gambol through the woods and hug a squirrel.) In a balanced scientific approach, Marchant, a geneticist and medical writer, offers a thoughtful examination of the evidence in an attempt to answer the question: can aspects of the mind be harnessed to cure the body?
Placebos and Stress
Marchant investigates medical conditions with mental components. Placebos, for example, are a staple of medical testing, purposely concocted to have no effect on patients, yet they can. Placebos don’t change anything a person is not consciously aware of, such as cholesterol levels. However, Marchant notes in certain instances they are able to significantly alter pain, and can work better than, or as well as, prescription medications. So much so, that even when people know they’re given a placebo, they still receive a beneficial effect. Still, they’re rarely studied. One reason is that placebos effects are often elusive and change depending on the type of placebo, shape, size or color, even the gender and culture of the patient. Marchant notes, “just because the benefits mediated by placebos are mostly subjective, that doesn’t mean they have no potential value for medicine.”
Another area Marchant examines in detail is stress. Over time, stress can have devastating physical consequences, since it actually has the ability to rewire the brain. She delves into case studies involving the benefits of continuous care and supportive interaction. One program called Comfort Talk, reduced the need to sedate children needing MRIs—lessening the need for more medication. What struck me most in much of the reporting in this book was how it often takes only a very small change in treatment, requiring little money or effort, to greatly improve the benefit for the patient. A large part of Comfort Talk, for instance, is simply eliminating scary language.
Brains are weird.
Yes, they are. Marchant has written a fascinating book. Cure is neither dry nor dull, and filled with personal stories of patients and researchers, some amusing, some rather heartbreaking. Marchant ends with a strong plea for more scientific research to fully understand the role of the mind in health, but funding sources remain elusive. More than three quarters of clinical trials are paid for by pharmaceutical companies who have no interest in findings that won’t lead to the development of new drug treatments. Here’s hoping at least a few CEOs will read this book and put profit aside for the betterment of all.
I received this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for a review.