Have you ever felt a surge of adrenaline after narrowly avoiding an accident? Salivated at the sight (or thought) of a tart lemon? Felt turned on just from hearing your partner’s voice? If so, then you’ve experienced how dramatically the workings of your mind can affect your body. Yet while we accept that stress or anxiety can damage our health, the idea of “healing thoughts” was long ago hijacked by New Age gurus and spiritual healers. Recently, however, traditional scientists from a range of fields have been uncovering evidence that our thoughts, emotions, and beliefs can ease pain, heal wounds, fend off infection and heart disease, and even slow the progression of AIDS and some cancers.
We sat down with award-winning science writer Jo Marchant, whose latest book is Cure: A Journey into the Science of Mind Over Body, to talk about the new science behind the mind’s surprising ability to heal the body.
One takeaway from Cure is that the placebo effect can be felt even if a patient knows he or she is taking a sugar pill. However, does the attitude of the doctor administering the placebo influence the placebo effect? If you know it’s a placebo and the doctor is skeptical of its effectiveness, are you more likely to not feel a benefit?
Yes, the beliefs and attitudes of doctors can affect placebo effects experienced by patients. There are studies showing exactly this with pain, for example. Other conditions and symptoms for which placebo effects are strong include depression, anxiety, fatigue, nausea, sleep problems, irritable bowel syndrome, and Parkinson’s disease. It’s unlikely, at least in our current medical system, that you would ever be prescribed an “honest” placebo by a doctor. But doctors’ attitudes can affect responses not just to placebos but to drugs too—in general the more hopeful your doctor is, the better you are likely to respond.
In Cure, you state that positive effects of the mind can heal. But do you think there is also a negative mind-body connection? Can negative feelings of stress, fear, and depression make someone who is suffering from a chronic disease feel worse?
Yes, the influence of the mind goes both ways. If we feel stressed or under threat, we become much more sensitive to symptoms such as pain and nausea. This may be why placebos work—feeling hopeful or cared for then helps to ease those symptoms. Placebo research tells us that whether positive or negative, these effects aren’t “all in the mind” but are underpinned by biological changes in the brain. In the long term, too, feeling stressed can be harmful for health, increasing the risk of chronic conditions such as atherosclerosis, diabetes, autoimmune disease, depression, and dementia.
A lot of the case studies from the book detail how a patient learned to manage his or her pain and achieved a better quality of life through alternative medicine. How does this help doctors learn more about these chronic diseases that currently have no cure?
The case studies I detail in the book involve therapies that are supported by evidence in clinical trials, so I wouldn’t describe them as “alternative” medicine. These include cognitive behavioral therapy for chronic fatigue syndrome; virtual reality therapy for pain in patients with severe burns; and mindfulness for depression. Of course many patients do experience benefits using alternative medicine—for example in a trial of 1,162 patients with chronic back pain, those who received acupuncture (real or fake) did much better than those who got conventional treatment that included medication. In other words, fake acupuncture was better than real painkillers! Perhaps patients in the acupuncture groups felt better cared for or had higher expectations for recovery. Results like this tell us that for conditions such as pain, we should take psychological and social factors into account when treating patients, rather than relying solely on drugs.
What do you say to skeptics and people who don’t believe in the power of mind over body? Do you have a sales pitch to try to convince them?
There are three points I’d make:
1. It’s clear that the mind can have dramatic and wide-ranging effects on physiology. Feeling afraid or stressed, for example, can trigger our heart to race and our bowels to empty. The sight or smell of delicious food can make us salivate, whereas rotten food might cause us to retch. This doesn’t mean that the mind is a “miracle cure,” but it does suggest we should take seriously the possibility that these biological effects might have some impact on health.
2. There are convincing evolutionary arguments for why the mind influences health. There are several lines of research, for example, suggesting that our perception of our surroundings influences the immune system in a way that makes us better able to deal with future threats. In other words, our minds have evolved to inform and influence our bodies in a way that aids survival. To me, that makes more scientific sense than the notion of a disembodied consciousness floating around in our skulls like some sort of spirit or soul.
3. Although more research is needed, there is now overwhelming evidence in many fields that the mind influences health. That ranges from neuroscience studies showing a flood of dopamine in the brains of Parkinson’s patients who receive a placebo, to clinical trials showing that hypnotherapy is a highly effective treatment for patients with irritable bowel syndrome.
If someone with a chronic disease is looking to harness the mind-body connection, what three tips would you give them to accomplish this and feel better?
1. Ask yourself whether you’re engaged with your treatment and feel positive about your chances for improvement. If not, consider how you might overcome your reluctance, or look for another treatment approach that appeals to you more.
2. Shop around to find a doctor whom you respect and trust, one you feel is engaged with your treatment and positive about your prognosis.
3. Remember that regardless of your physical condition, symptoms such as pain and fatigue are ultimately generated and controlled by the brain. Feeling fearful or anxious about your condition may amplify any symptoms you feel. To minimize them, try to accept your symptoms and make an effort to do things that you enjoy and that you find meaningful.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR Jo Marchant is the author of Decoding the Heavens, shortlisted for the Royal Society Prize. She has a PhD in genetics and medical microbiology and has written on everything from the future of genetic engineering to underwater archaeology for New Scientist, Nature, The Guardian, and Smithsonian. She has appeared on BBC Radio, CNN, and National Geographic. She lives in London.
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