By JANE E. BRODY; Jane E. Brody is the personal health columnist of The New York Times.
Published: March 27, 1988
Leave a pendulum to its own devices and it most assuredly will swing the other way. So it has been lately with a theory of health and healing that treats the mind as a weapon at least as powerful as the best of modern medicaments. After nearly a century stuck on the side of the body, the pendulum has recently cut a wide arc toward the mind.
Consider this list of recently published books, many by doctors: ”The Healer Within,” ”The Healing Brain,” ”The Healing Heart,” ”Healing From Within,” ”Minding the Body, Mending the Mind,” ”Living the Therapeutic Touch,” ”Who Gets Sick” and the current best seller ”Love, Medicine & Miracles,” as well as some still-popular books nearly a decade old like ”Anatomy of an Illness” and ”The Relaxation Response.” The proliferation of titles hints strongly at the current ferment inside and outside of established medicine. It is ferment that should ultimately bring the pendulum back to the middle, with benefit not just to the health-conscious public but probably also to medical practitioners, many of whom are all too aware of the limitations of scientific medicine.
For most of human history, medicine was little more than a bag of mind-altering tricks. Except for some potent herbs that later became the basis for effective pharmaceuticals, the early healers had little more going for them than their ability to inspire trust and invoke images of recovery. In fact, it was not until the advent of scientific medicine near the turn of this century that physical ministrations began to overshadow – and at times nearly obliterate – the impact of mental states on resistance to and recovery from illness.
The influence of biophysical medicine was further strengthened by the convenient separation of the human organism into a psyche and a soma and the rise of psychiatry as a distinctly separate field of medicine, its practitioners rarely consulted when the soma malfunctioned.
In the 1940’s and 50’s there was a brief revival of interest in the impact of mind on body as psychiatrists like Dr. Franz Alexander and later Dr. Flanders Dunbar formulated and popularized what came to be known as psychosomatic medicine. This discipline depicted emotional upheaval and certain personality types as important contributors to certain physical ailments, suggesting that adjustments in feelings and thoughts might prevent disease or promote recovery. Unfortunately, rather than pursue scientifically the many remedial hints offered by psychosomatics, physicians who heeded the field at all tended to dismiss such diseases as ”all in the mind” and their victims as ”crocks” who took up far too much of the doctor’s time. Or they simply shipped such patients off to psychiatrists.
Following publication of Dr. Hans Selye’s great works on the physiology of emotions, ”The Stress of Life” (in 1956) and ”Stress and Distress” (in 1974), a small but determined constituency that favored reuniting body and mind began to form within mainstream medicine. Researchers gathered an impressive body of circumstantial evidence: excessive rates of illness and death among the bereaved and divorced, triple the heart attack rate among hurried, hard-driving overachievers, a disproportionate number of cancers among people who felt helpless and hopeless, to cite a few examples. The undisputed existence of the placebo effect – the ability of a sugar pill to relieve physical symptoms – was in itself convincing evidence of a strong mind-body influence.
Still, it took a revolution in neurochemistry and immunology to produce the concrete evidence needed to give mind-body discipline the credibility it is now beginning to enjoy. Just in the last few years researchers have shown, for example, that placebos influence brain chemicals that in turn can relieve pain and promote healing; that undue emotional stress can depress the body’s immunological responses, and that an aggressive attitude toward illness can bolster those responses. Indeed, if studies in laboratory animals can be applied to humans, it is likely that some people ”learn” to get sick by subconsciously deranging their immune systems, which should also mean that people can learn to get well.
It is now known that cells of the brain and the immune system share receptors for messenger neurochemicals, providing a communications network by which emotions can be translated into bodily changes. These findings have given birth to a new science: psychoneuroimmunology, popularly called PNI, which, despite the skepticism of many doctors, has already become a pet topic of the self-help movement.
Which brings us to the current spate of books aimed at a public somewhat disillusioned with dispassionate scientific medicine and anxious to do what it can to weight the odds on the side of recovery and wellness. Are people being led down a garden path of unproven remedies? Are they abandoning therapies that have been scientifically established as effective in favor of emotionally attractive but useless quackery? Are they being duped into thinking that they are somehow personally responsible for their illnesses and therefore also responsible for getting well?