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Can the human mind cure the body?

Harvard University scholar Anne Harrington looks at healing through the mind-body connection.

By / January 22, 2008

The Cure Within: A History of Mind-Body Medicine By Anne Harrington W.W. Norton & Co. 354 pp., $25.95


Americans who watched the collapse of the World Trade Center towers on TV and reported feeling anxiety afterward also experienced increased rates of various heart ailments in the following three years.

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That's the conclusion of a recent scholarly article in the Archives of General Psychiatry. Such research, showing intriguing connections between physical health and states of mind, has come in a steady flow for decades. While some studies are challenged or discredited, others replace them.

Ordinary Americans seem more comfortable than medical researchers with the idea that thoughts can control experience. The idea is embedded in popular culture: In the 1950 musical "Guys and Dolls" the humorous song "Adelaide's Lament" tells the story of a woman whose frustration in not getting married brings on a cold.

But what exactly is the relationship between mind and body? How strong is it? How is it evoked and how does it work?

In The Cure Within, Anne Harrington traces the mind-body connection through the centuries and in its many manifestations. Harrington, chair of the history of science department at Harvard University, finds that mind-body medicine is really a "patchwork" of widely differing beliefs and approaches that often "pull in different directions."

The many manifestations of mind-body healing make for fascinating reading, though her own conclusion on the subject is no more definitive than "let a thousand therapies bloom" alongside conventional, technological medicine.

The reductionist, "physicalist" medicine of today views disease as wholly a material phenomenon, she says. Disease has no meaning beyond being a natural physical process. Yet patients continue to seek out alternative meanings and methods. They see stories in their illnesses. Understanding these stories, they feel, will help lead to wholeness. When their bodies fail them, when they fall ill, people want to know the "why" questions: They ask "Why me? Why now? What next?" she says.

A broader tent for treating disease, Harrington says, would allow "that there is more to physical illness than can be seen just in the body; and more to healing than can be found in just pills and shots. Mind matters too: how one thinks, how one feels, what kind of personality or character one has or cultivates."

In the book readers encounter individuals such as 18th-century physician Franz Anton Mesmer and his form of healing through hypnotism, called mesmerism; Sigmund Freud and the birth of psychoanalysis, which explores the idea that "every illness was more than just a biological event; it was also a biographical event rich with (usually hidden) meaning...."