Review From User :
Fascinating stuff! Marchant reminds us at every turn that more research is needed to confirm the effectiveness of many of the brain related health benefits she talks about, but still... so intriguing!
Marchant, a writer of popular science with respectable science-y credentials (PhD in genetics and medical microbiology, according to her website), presents this exploration of some of the current research and trials into ways that alternative medicine is trying to assist or replace conventional medicine in treating various health problems. Despite having read fairly recently some other books which described ways that the brain can alter perceptions of reality and physical systems in the body, I am generally skeptical about the power of things like hypnosis, meditation, and mindfulness to cure physical ailments (things like that seem more plausible to me as remedies for depression and stress). This is pretty much the attitude Marchant conveys at the book's opening also, which inclined me to feel comfortable in joining her on a tour of mind-focused health remedies.
She begins with a story of chatting with another mom at a park during an outing with her kids, and of her dismay at this intelligent woman's reliance on homeopathic remedies. Homeopathy, she tells us, is based on the idea that the most minimal traces of an "active substance" can effect a cure. "My new friend looked at me scornfully. "Nothing measurable," she replied, as if I were slightly dim for not grasping that its healing properties are due to an indefinable essence that's beyond scientists' reach. And in those two words, I felt that she summed up one of the major philosophical battles in medicine today."
The book has two main parts, divided roughly as Marchant says,
"In writing this book, I traveled around the world to investigate some of the pioneering research that's happening in this area right now. My aim was to track down those scientists swimming against mainstream opinion to study the effects of the mind on the body, and using that knowledge to help patients. What can the mind really do How does it work, and why And how can we use those latest findings in our own lives
We start with perhaps the purest example of mind's influence on the body - the placebo effect - and the scientists looking at what really happens when we take fake pills. After that we explore some astonishing ways to trick the mind into fighting disease, from using hypnosis to slow gut contractions, to training the immune system to respond to taste and smell. And we learn how simply hearing the right words from your caregiver can determine whether or not you need surgery - and even how long you live.
The second half of the book moves beyond the immediate effects of thoughts and beliefs to look at how our state of mind shapes disease risk throughout our lives. We visit scientists using brain scanning and DNA analysis to test whether mind-body therapies from meditation to biofeedback really make us healthier. And we look at how our perception of the world around us influences our physical makeup, right down to the activity of our genes."
I found the first chapter, on the placebo effect, a fascinating introduction to the subject. Marchant describes some patients who were "cured" of their problems after being treated with fake medicines or surgeries. Rather than writing this off as merely wishful thinking on the part of the subjects, however, we learn that as a result of expectations, the patients' brains released chemicals in the same way they would have if treated by conventional means. We see this, for example, in the case of a Parkinson's patient who, brain scans demonstrate, gets the same improvement in the response of her motor neurons from her placebo that she does from the drug used in her treatment. "Benedetti (an Italian neuroscientist) has chased a belief right down to an individual cell - demonstrating that in Parkinson's patients, motor neurons fire more slowly after injection of a placebo, exactly as they do in response to a real drug."
Marchant continues through various mind-related treatments, always presenting her material in a lively, engaging, nontechnical way which the common reader should find easy to follow. I was reminded of Oliver Sacks, Sam Kean, Bill Bryson, and others who have the wonderful gift of presenting the work of specialists and cases of subjects they describe in such a clear and interesting way that the nonspecialist reader feels that highly technical subjects are really quite understandable after all. Details of nervous system and immune system function all fit together nicely, as presented, and I felt (very briefly) quite at home with things like the amygdala and the parasympathetic nervous system.
She notes where study sizes are too small for results to be meaningful, and also instances where other specialists in the field involved offer particular objections to an alternative treatment. She also comments on where evidence of the effectiveness of an alternative medical treatment is strong, but where the medical system fails to pay attention, often due in large part to opposition by the powerful interests of drug and medical technology companies.
Marchant concludes with a call for greater openness to treatments which harness the power of the mind to heal the body. Without discounting the amazing advances of modern drugs and surgical techniques, she advocates an approach which also recognizes the importance of human relationships and support.
"I am not advocating relying solely on the mind to heal us; but denying its role in medicine surely isn't the answer either. My hope, then, is that this book might help to overcome some of the prejudice against mind-body approaches, and to raise awareness that taking account of the mind in health is actually a more scientific and evidence-based approach than relying ever more heavily on physical interventions and drugs.
Perhaps one day this realization might help lead towards a system of medicine that combines the best of both worlds: one that uses life-saving drugs and technologies when they are needed, but also supports us to reduce our risk of disease and to manage our own symptoms when we are ill; and when there is no cure, cares for us and allows us to die with dignity. I hope that such a system of medicine would respect patients as equal participants whose beliefs, experiences, and preferences matter in their care; and that it would no longer stigmatize those with unexplained symptoms; and that it would recognize that the vast majority of health problems we face aren't physical or psychological - they are both."
I received this book from LibraryThing through their Early Reviewers program with the understanding that the content of my review would not affect my likelihood of receiving books through the program in the future. Many thanks to Crown Publishers and LibraryThing!
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