Cure: a journey into the science of mind over body
by JO MARCHANT
Text Publishing (2016)
To Jo Marchant, the links between mind and body are self-evident.
“Have you ever felt a surge of adrenaline after being narrowly missed by a car?” she writes in the introduction to Cure. “Felt turned on just from hearing your lover’s voice? Retched at the sight of maggots in the trash?” All these things dramatically establish how the workings of the mind can have an effect on the physical body.
And yet, as Marchant points out, how this relates to health is still largely unknown territory. While it has long been known that negative mental states such as stress or anxiety can damage our health, there is still a limited understanding of how and why this happens.
And even less understanding of the positive side of the equation – how might a positive mental state improve our longterm health?
Marchant blames it all on 17th century French philosopher René Descartes – he of the “cogito ergo sum” (I think, therefore I am) dualism that tried to establish the mind as separate from the body.
As Marchant points out, modern neuroscience has mostly abandoned that mind-body dualism and now understands every brain state as associated with a physical configuration of neurons – unable to be separated.
But while the neuroscientists may get it, too many medical practitioners and their patients just don’t – and the business of this book is to close that gap in understanding.
Not that she is here to justify quackery. Her scientific credentials (a PhD in genetics and microbiology) are impeccable. But just because some alternative therapies are bogus, not all fail the test of rigorous scientific experimentation. The mission here is to show the state-of-the-art thinking about the health of both mind and body and how the two intersect and interrelate.
The search takes her in the first part of the book around the world to find the very latest research, exploring the neurological, hormonal and physical process that connect our brain to our well-being. And how we can harness those connections to treat a variety of conditions that we would traditionally turn to drugs for.
In many cases, we really can use the placebo effect to “kiss it better”, as we would a child’s grazed knee, but we can also train our immune system to function better, indeed rewire our whole brain if necessary, and meditate to protect us from dementia and depression.
As she is often dealing with the very edge of experimentation, some of her claims can be contentious, such as her slightly new age concepts of “mindfulness” in medicine.
This is true of a good deal of the second part of the book, which looks at how our state of mind shapes health risk and the most effective treatments and alternative therapies to harness the mind’s power.
But in the end her strong scientific grounding and her attractive writing style save the day. As she tells us, she does not advocate relying solely on the mind to heal us – but nor should we deny its power completely.
She does not advocate relying solely on the mind to heal us – but nor should we deny its power completely.
“My hope, then, is that this book might help to overcome some of the prejudice against mind-body approaches, and to raise awareness that 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.”
Instead, she says, she is seeking to outline a potentially happy medium.
“Perhaps one day this realization might help lead towards a system of medicine that combines the best of both worlds: one that uses life-saving drugs and technologies when they are needed, but also supports us to reduce our risk of disease and to manage our own symptoms when we are ill; and when there is no cure, cares for us and allows us to die with dignity.”
Bill Condie is a science journalist based in Adelaide, Australia.
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