From multiple sclerosis to chronic pain to HIV, science is increasingly showing us that what’s in a patient’s head affects how the body heals.
I met Tunde Balogh at the Catholic pilgrimage site of Lourdes, France. The 37-year-old, originally from Hungary, had been diagnosed with breast cancer a year earlier but refused conventional treatment.
“They’d cut off my breast, I didn’t want to do that,” she told me. Instead, she felt the answer was inside her. She tried reiki, reflexology, and eventually German New Medicine, which teaches that cancer is caused by emotional conflict. But none of it worked; the cancer soon spread to her bones. By the time she made it to Lourdes, her only hope was a miracle cure.
Let’s be clear: Claims that the mind can heal aren’t harmless. When made in the absence of evidence they raise false hope, and if people reject conventional treatment they need, they can die. That includes cancer patients, but less dramatic cases risk lives, too. Homeopaths regularly caution parents not to vaccinate their children against potentially fatal childhood infections, for example, and advise travelers against conventional drugs to protect against malaria.
Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that skeptics react to any suggestion of healing thoughts as an evil threat to be stamped out, branding everything from placebo research to integrative medicine as “quackery.” But when researching my book, Cure: A Journey Into the Science of Mind Over Body, I came to the conclusion that this position isn’t supported by the science either.
Although the mind isn’t a miracle cure—we will always need physical drugs and treatments—there is now overwhelming evidence that it drives biological changes that are crucial for physical health, influencing everything from pain to the immune system.
Our mental state has particularly dramatic effects when it comes to the symptoms we experience: things like pain, nausea, fatigue and depression. Playing a virtual-reality game eases pain in burn patients by as much as 50 percent (PDF) more than drugs alone, while research on placebos—fake treatments—tells us that psychological factors such as expectation and social interaction ease symptoms via biological changes very similar to those caused by drugs. Placebo painkillers trigger the release of natural pain-relieving chemicals called endorphins. Parkinson’s patients respond to placebos with a flood of needed dopamine. Breathing fake oxygen can reduce the levels of neurotransmitters called prostaglandins, which cause many of the symptoms of altitude sickness.
It might sound crazy that thoughts and expectations should have similar effects to drugs, but underlying many placebo responses is the simple principle that the symptoms we feel aren’t a direct, inevitable consequence of physical damage to the body.
Such damage is important, of course, but ultimately our experience of it is created and controlled by the brain. If we feel stressed and alone, warning signals such as pain, fatigue, and nausea are amplified. If we feel safe and cared for (whether that means being surrounded by friends or receiving what we believe to be an effective medical treatment), our symptoms are eased.
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