Friday, January 29, 2016

Healing Thoughts

The Human Mind

Heal Thyself: One of the ways of testing the mind’s effect on the body is to give patients placebos openly and honestly. Medical researchers do know that expectations play a role in their efficacy; why they work in certain cases requires further study. In an interview by Gareth Cook for Scientific American, Jo Marchant says: “Future questions include teasing out the psychological factors that shape placebo responses, and investigating why honest placebos (where someone knows they are taking a placebo) seem to work — this research has barely begun. Scientists also want to pin down exactly what conditions placebos work for (most research so far is on a few model systems, like pain, depression and Parkinson’s), and who they work for (both genes and personality seem to play a role). And then of course there is the question of how we can maximize these responses, and integrate them into routine clinical care in an honest way.”
Image Credit: Eraxion/iStock

Scientists are beginning to concede that the mind and body are entwined, and that healing thoughts can and do actually take place, where these influence the health of the human body. How this works is not completely understood. Such is the crux of the discussion between Gareth Cook and Jo Marchant, science journalist and author of Cure: A Journey into the Science of Mind Over Body (2016), in an interview for Scientific American. Marchant holds a doctorate in genetics and medical microbiology.

In “The Science Of Healing Thoughts” (January 19, 2016), Cook writes:
You have taken on a topic where, historically, there has been a tremendous amount of quackery. What convinced you that there was a compelling scientific story to tell?
The misunderstandings and false claims were one of the elements that drew me to the topic of mind-body medicine in the first place. The mind influences physiology in many ways — from stress to sexual arousal — so it has always seemed reasonable to me that it might impact health. Yet the question has become so polarized: advocates of alternative medicine claim miracle cures, while many conventional scientists and doctors insist any suggestion of “healing thoughts” is deluded.
I was interested in those clashing philosophies: I wanted to look at why it is so difficult to have a reasoned debate about this issue. What drives so many people to believe in the pseudoscientific claims of alternative therapists, and why are skeptics so resistant to any suggestion that the mind might influence health?
At the same time, I wanted to dig through the scientific research to find out what the evidence really says about the mind’s effects on the body. That took me around the world, interviewing scientists who are investigating this question (often struggling for funding or risking their reputations to do so) and their results persuaded me that as well as being an interesting sociological or philosophical story, this was a compelling scientific one.
Examples include trials demonstrating that hypnotherapy is a highly effective treatment for patients with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and studies showing that perceived stress correlates with telomere length in cells. But what I personally found most convincing were studies suggesting an evolutionary rationale for the mind’s influence on health.
There are now several lines of research suggesting that our mental perception of the world constantly informs and guides our immune system in a way that makes us better able to respond to future threats. That was a sort of ‘aha’ moment for me — where the idea of an entwined mind and body suddenly made more scientific sense than an ephemeral consciousness that’s somehow separated from our physical selves.
This is an important and noteworthy statement that has serious ramifications for the future of science, and in particular medical science. That there is a mind-body connection is something that non-scientists have long “felt” as true, but of course this has long been considered by scientists and medical researchers as mere anecdotal information.  And understandably so, since they could not measure the pathways or modes of effect in the same way that blood flow from the heart, or lung capacity or neuronal activity in the brain could be measured.

Modern medicine has been governed by Cartesian dualism, where the body is viewed as a machine and the mind has no measurable effect on the body. But such views are slowly changing, as scientists gather evidence that the two are not separate. For example, there have been a few scientific studies on the “placebo effect,” including a famous one by Ted Kaptchuk at Harvard which show its efficacy, even when patients were told that they were taking a placebo. The mere fact that they were given “something” improved both patients’ views and the results. Does it also matter that the giving by a health professional shows care and concern? That the act of giving is in itself essential to health and wellness?

This is hard to understand and accept for some. Yet, what we do know is that optimists live healthier and better lives than realists, as do people who are not socially isolated and feel love and compassion. It is likely that the latter influences the former, at least to some degree, if not more.  Again, how to measure or quantify this is not easy; thus, this is still an open question. No one here is suggesting that the human mind can in all cases act as a substitute for medication or surgery, but it can act as an effective and affirmative complementary way for humans to help themselves heal.

And that is a beautiful and wonderful thing.

For more, go to [ScientAmer]

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