WESTERN medicine is just beginning to understand the link between thought and ill health, between the human mind and the human body. The harmful effects of stress, depression, and anger on the body have been well documented.
Now, many mainstream medical experts say there may be a positive relationship between happier emotions and healing. Bill Moyers takes on "Healing and the Mind" in a difficult five-part documentary series (airing Feb. 22-24 on PBS, check local listings) that investigates the growing medical interest in and exploration of the human mind/body link.
The two questions Mr. Moyers explores are: How do thoughts and feelings influence health? How is healing related to the mind? Though Moyers takes the viewer through a spectrum of medical evidence and theory, those questions are left largely unanswered, because researchers are just beginning to ask them.
"Healing and the Mind" is no walk in the park: A lot of physical and mental suffering is graphically presented. Many of the situations presented are heart-wrenchingly sad; the discussions of death, loneliness, pain, and disease are explicit. The point of view taken by the filmmakers is limited by and anchored in contemporary medicine. Only those experiments in alternative treatment that are deemed compatible with medical orthodoxy are investigated here. Reached by phone, Moyers said that he deliberately confined his documentary to the medical realm, leaving out any investigation of religious healing.
"Healing and the Mind" is therefore a conservative inquiry. Moyers says in the introduction to his book of the same title (a companion volume to the series) that he was warned that the series might encourage dangerously ill patients to "defy the physician, discard the medicine, stop the chemotherapy, and embrace `alternative' treatment."
Moyers was further cautioned that the series might appear to support the kind of "mind-over-matter thinking that makes people feel guilty about their illness." So Moyers frequently reinforces Western medicine's domination and underscores how little is really known about the mind's effect on the body. He is scrupulously careful not to undermine the biomedical model.
Yet implicit in all the information provided is an important challenge to the medical establishment's traditionally mechanistic approach to curing: A human being is more than a "ghost in a machine." The doctors and nurses of this series take their patients' states of mind into consideration. They treat them as people, with caring concern, not as diseased organs ("the liver in room 203"). Caring for the patients' emotional needs is thought to promote healing.
Part 1, "The Mystery of Chi," looks at traditional Chinese medicine as it operates today - side-by-side with Western medicine. Dr. David Eisenberg guides Moyers through the different methods of treatment, including a highly complex system of herbal medicines, acupuncture, and an ancient martial art. Chinese medicine recognizes no mind/body split, but is based on a belief in an essential life energy, called "chi."
Part 2, "The Mind-Body Connection," deals with the cutting edge of psychoneuroimmunology. The doctors interviewed study the connection between emotions and brain function and the influence of emotions on the immune system. They are trying to understand how the brain and the immune system "talk" to each other. The focus is on the biochemical link.
Part 3, "Healing From Within," deals with the unconventional treatment of chronic pain at the stress-reduction clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, where a form of Buddhist meditation is taught to patients for whom conventional medicine can do nothing.
In another ongoing experiment at Stanford University, psychiatrist David Spiegel organizes support groups with women who have been diagnosed as having terminal breast cancer. It is Dr. Spiegel's belief that by sharing their terror and sorrow, the women will increase their survival time. A control group receives only conventional medical care, while his group meets weekly for mutual support.
The best of the five programs is Part 4, "The Art of Healing," which shows various medical practitioners taking a humane approach to the care of their patients: showing interest in them as human beings, taking time to explain medical procedures, and encouraging family participation in the healing process. Nurses in one hospital no longer have to defy hospital procedure to sit and talk with elderly patients. An African-American doctor still makes house calls. Mothers of premature infants are encouraged to
visit their babies in the hospital to nurture them.
Part 5, "Wounded Healers," visits a retreat in California whose purpose is to encourage cancer patients to experience illness as part of life. This was by far the most wrenching of the five programs.
Though a number of interesting developments in medical care are brought to light, the series has some serious problems.
If, as the series insists, emotions influence health or encourage disease, wouldn't images of gross suffering inspire conscious and unconscious fear in the viewer and, inadvertently, disease? The images of suffering, particularly in Parts 3 and 5, do inspire fear: The viewer is encouraged, by the very nature of the stories being told, to identify with the sickness and empathize with the patients. If the human mind is believed to be a healing agent, how can the acceptance of disease as a deadly, inescapab le reality be anything but detrimental?
IN fact, "healing," as used in the series, is emphatically not "curing." "Healing," here, has more to do with "coping" with an illness diagnosed as terminal, with developing habits of diet, meditation, and exercise thought to prolong life and prevent disease, or with pain management. The filmmakers try (and fail) to make the case that patients may be "healed" even when they cannot be "cured" - which is to say, they can be comforted and helped to accept suffering as their fate.
The most important insights "Healing and the Mind" has to offer concern the importance of community, the importance of respect for the whole person, and the direct effect of thought on the body. Perhaps what is more useful to the patients in the cancer support groups is the sense of community they share, rather than the litany of fears they are encouraged to deliver. It is tragic indictment of our society that community should be so hard to come by. Artificial as they are, these mini-communities appear t o provide a nurturing or caring environment while demanding that the patient care for others in return - loving and being loved.
The series has been undertaken with the best intentions and the highest journalistic integrity. Yet by its own standards this documentary fails to do the good it so obviously intends.
Because "Healing and the Mind" is so cautious, so tied to orthodox medicine, it stays rigorously within the traditional definition of mind and body. At nearly every turn, radically different interpretations of the same data might surprise the filmmakers by opening doors of insight infinitely more helpful to the sick than the positions taken.