I just read Cure: a journey into the science of mind over body. Science journalist Jo Marchant explores what eludes measurement – the inner landscape of the mind. The physical body dominates the focus of western medicine but Marchant finds that there is much more to healing than fixing the broken bone or extracting the tumor. She interviews many scientists who’ve dedicated their research to understanding the healing process.
As we live longer, living with pain or chronic illness is more likely. So how do we use our brain to befriend our body and manage the aging and disease process? Cure is not a quick read, nor a self-help book with its exhaustive research. I recommend diving into the details but the following are highlights that struck me:
The placebo effect is real. While it may not alter the underlying disease, it can reduce the symptoms simply by the patient’s believing it will help. As anthropologist Dan Moerman says, “the active ingredient is meaning”.
Chronic stress increases susceptibility to pain, infection, and chronic disease. The release of cortisol equips the body to fight or flee an immediate crisis but long term has a debilitating effect. Poverty as a chronic stressor is a leading indicator of future health problems.
The nocebo effect is when a patient adversely reacts to a harmless treatment. For example, radiologist Elvira Lange looked at how preparing patients for the sting of a shot might actually make the pain worse. Better to visualize something positive. She coined the phrase “comfort talk” showing how a kind word, a smile, a continuing relationship with a caregiver can make a profound difference.
The brain is the “central governor” determining when our muscles become fatigued. Sports physiologist Tim Noakes studied fatigue in athletes concluding that fatigue was less physical than mental as the brain perceives sensation and emotion, putting on the brakes before a physical collapse. This need for muscular reserve to flee whatever danger arises (ex. a lion in the desert savannah) is easy to understand from an evolutionary perspective. This braking can become a f