Wednesday, February 24, 2016
'Cure' by Jo Marchant
A rigorous, skeptical, deeply reported look at the new science behind the mind's surprising ability to heal the body
Have you ever felt a surge of adrenaline after narrowly avoiding an accident? Salivated at the sight (or thought) of a sour lemon? Felt turned on just from hearing your partner's voice? If so, then you've experienced how dramatically the workings of your mind can affect your body.
I requested this book with a bit of trepidation. The concept that our minds are huge tools in our arsenal against disease has been close to my heart for a long time, but I got the feeling from reading Jo Marchant's bio that she wasn't going to just nod and accept it without a lot of probing around. Still, at least she embarked on her personal quest with an understanding that the mind/body connection shouldn't be shrugged off by the cynical as hogwash. Since it's widely agreed by medical experts that negative mental states such as stress and anxiety have detrimental effects on the body, why not consider the flip side, that positive, happy states can be beneficial? I'll mention her findings which I found most interesting.
1) Marchant came up with evidence that continued stress may accelerate premature aging. Although external problems don't damage our bodies directly, our long term psychological responses to the stressful circumstances can certainly harm us. Marchant's subjects were worn-out mothers who are the primary carers of children with severe intellectual disabilities. Some of the them even noticed effects such as suddenly greying hair.
2) The emotion of fear takes a severe toll on people. Although it's been suggested over the years that positive and negative stress have similar results on the body, Marchant has come to believe that their effects are way different. People with stressful childhood histories react far quicker to stress, and chronically stressed people find that small hassles escalate to full-blown anxiety far faster than others. These are measurable in the way the brain is wired, helping to explain why the effects of early adversity can persist long after others think it should have stopped.
3) My favourite part was Marchant's discussion with the young father Gareth Walker who suffers from M.S. He made a personal discovery that a lifestyle of regular quiet time and living in the moment has helped him halt the process of his disease more than he'd believed possible. The conscious decision to change his thought patterns changed him from a reactive, fear-driven person who dreaded his future to a calmer man who recognises his thoughts as mere background chatter which he doesn't have to buy into. His is a philosophy I admire.
Overall, I can't help wondering if Marchant has walked into her project with a closed mind, even though she tries to be impartial and fair. She says things like, 'I usually try my hardest to avoid religious ceremonies. I get uneasy about the idea of substituting reason and clear understanding for robes, incantations and mysterious higher powers.' She comes across as the sort of person who finds it impossible to accept a miracle on face value without scrabbling around for some measurable way to explain it. Anybody who wants to read this book should be aware that the author never considers the divine as a possible explanation at all. That's just not the sort of person she is.
At the end, I'm left with the same feeling I get after watching current affair documentaries. After waiting for what seems to be advertised as promised breakthroughs, the journalists end up cautiously sitting on the fence, unwilling to commit themselves one way or another. And after all the words in this book, Jo Marchant seems to be doing the same thing. Still, it's interesting to read some of the direct results of her research, in spite of her not wanting to make a firm stand for the mind/body connection.
I think my favourite book which delves into the mind/body connection written by a medical doctor is still The Fear Cure by Dr Lissa Rankin.
Thanks to Crown Publishing and Blogging for Books for giving me a copy through NetGalley.