Wednesday, February 17, 2016

The power of the mind

I can recall walking, in pain and a little slumped over, into a doctor's office to learn the results of tests and expecting the worst. Instead the problem turned out to be something relatively minor. Other than offering advice and prescribing medication, the doctor did nothing. Yet I walked out of his office pain free, and the pain never returned, in fact. Since then I have believed that what we think has a lot to do with how we feel.

Jo Marchant
Cure: A Journey into the Science of Mind over Body by Jo Marchant explores this very thing. Despite what the title suggests, there really hasn't been all that much scientific study of this phenomenon. She writes that the annual budget of the U.S. National Institutes of Health is around $30 billion. Yet less than 0.2 percent of that goes into testing mind-body therapies. This has much to do with the fact that drug companies and health professionals are driven by the need to make money. How can they maximize profits if patients don't actually need all those costly tests and treatments to feel better?

Most of Marchant's book looks into the work either of fringe researchers, who get little support from the medical establishment, or amateurs, who some might consider quacks. She studies such things as hypnosis, mindfulness, biofeedback, the power of suggestion and even the waters of Lourdes. Medically sound or not, these various strategies have produced amazing success stories.

One outcome that has been thoroughly studied scientifically is the success of placebos in making people feel better. Placebos are the sugar pills or empty capsules that some subjects in drug tests are given for comparison against those who take the real thing. Sometimes the placebos work just as effectively as the drugs. Furthermore, placebos work even when patients know they are taking placebos.

Speaking of placebos, Marchant writes, "Big pills tend to be more effective than small ones, for example. Two pills at once work better than one. A pill with a recognizable  brand name stamped across the front is more effective than one without. Colored pills tend to work better than white ones, although which color is best depends upon the effect that you are trying to create. Blue tends to help sleep, whereas red is good for relieving pain. Green pills work best for anxiety."

The point of Marchant's book is not that we don't need doctors, drugs or hospitals. Most of us do at some point in our lives. She argues effectively, however, that organized medicine would work better if it worked in conjunction with the power of the mind. More time spent listening to patients. Hospital rooms that look less like hospital rooms. Speaking in positive, comforting tones. And simply not giving warnings like "just a pinch" before injecting a needle into the skin. Sometimes it doesn't take much to help people feel better, as I learned that day in my doctor's office.

No comments:

Post a Comment