Anne Harrington on Mind-Body Medicine

Anne HarringtonThe legendary e-zine Salon has published an interview with Harvard historian of science Anne Harrington about her latest book, The Cure Within: A History of Mind-Body Medicine. “Mind-body medicine,” she says, “is a patchwork of ideas about the way in which we think that our minds make us sick, and might make us well.”

The interview starts with a discussion of the power of suggestion: “the interesting thing about the power of suggestion in hypnosis is that it’s an emergent product of a much, much older interpersonal drama that actually goes back to medieval times, the drama of the exorcist who exorcises demons from the bodies of possessed people and exerts control over the demon.”

In recent years, however, the power of suggestion can be seen in our analysis of placebos. For much of the 20th century, it was believed that placebos worked becaus the physician had the power to suggest to the patient that they will work. But over the past generation, there has been a profound change. Harrington says, “We now think if you take a placebo, and you believe it’s going to work, your brain is going to change, and that might in turn lead to a cascade of effects that will cause your body to heal faster.” In short, it has shifted from the power of an external authority, to the power of our own “positive thinking.”

However, things may be changing again. According to Harrington, “the power of positive thinking actually, just a couple of months ago, received a setback. In December there was an article published in the medical journal Cancer that claimed [the researchers] had attempted to see whether or not emotional well-being and a particularly positive attitude had any influence on the course of cancer. There was no effect.”

There is also a discussion of the impact of support groups, the alleged healing effects of which have be rejected in several recent studies. “Epidemiological data suggests that people who are more embedded, who are married, who go to church, who claim to have more friends tend, on average, to be more resistant to the slings and arrows. They live, on average, longer. What has experienced a blow is the idea that you could operationalize this idea by turning it into a therapy for people who are already very sick.”

Dr Harrington also considers the history of certain personality types that have been thought to lead to certain kinds of disease, such as heart attack, or even cancer. And there is a discussion of the surprisingly recent historical invention of the concept of psychological “stress.”

In sum, Harrington argues that, “Mind-body medicine is always living alongside and in the cracks of the dominant approach to disease and healing that we have in our culture…. When do we find ourselves being tempted by or drawn to the other understandings of mind-body medicine? It’s often when mainstream medicine lets us down or can’t provide therapies. Often around chronic disorders…”

There is an audio version of the interview available as well.

Tip o’ the hat to Mind Hacks again for alerting me to this item.

About Christopher Green

Professor of Psychology at York University (Toronto). Former editor of the Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences. Creator of the "Classics in the History of Psychology" website and of the "This Week in the History of Psychology" podcast series.