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The Science of Healing Thoughts

Written by on March 19, 2018

For centuries, the idea of “healing thoughts” has held sway over the faithful. In recent decades it’s fascinated the followers of all manner of self-help movements, including those whose main purpose seems to be separating the sick from their money. Now, though, a growing body of scientific research suggests that our mind can play an important role in healing our body — or in staying healthy in the first place. In the book Cure, the veteran science journalist Jo Marchant brings her critical eye to this fascinating new terrain, sharing the latest discoveries and telling the stories of the people —Iraq war veterans among them — who are being helped by cures aimed at both body and mind. Marchant answered questions from Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook.

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.


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