This is an absolutely fascinating read. Written by a scientist, it explores the research into ways our minds influence our physical well-being, our tolerance of pain and our immunity. The first chapter is all about the placebo effect. So far so good, most of us have heard of this and feel slightly self-conscious about the truth that simply taking something we think will do us good, might actually do us good. But we think we have to be conned into thinking we might be getting the real thing in order for placebos to ‘work’. However in chapter 2, we get into really interesting territory: how placebo treatments can still be effective EVEN when we know they are placebo treatments!
In these two first chapters Marchant has laid the foundation for the simple truth which she then explores throughout the rest of the book and the truth is this: your mind can influence your physical well-being. There are psychological resources which can be harnessed which will materially affect our recovery from an illness or our ability to manage the symptoms of a chronic condition.
She is NOT talking about “the power of positive thinking” which is a concept that makes me cringe and I feel can load unnecessary guilt onto people who are already weighed down by their pain and the distress of their condition. At the extreme end of the “positive thinking” spectrum there are those people who would eschew normal and appropriate medical interventions, in my view a very foolish step. This is not a book which makes any suggestion along those lines, in fact it carries (in the final chapter) a very stark warning story about the dangers of relying on positive thinking alone.
The story that Marchant tells is about non-medical treatments and interventions which, used alongside appropriate pharmaceutical intervention, can make a huge difference. The kind of conditions she discusses are lupus, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s, chronic fatigue, IBS and pain management for burns victims. The kind of psychological treatments she explores are: (warning, if you are from a conservative evangelical Christian background some of these will give you the ‘heebie-jeebies’) placebos and the power of rituals, hypnosis, meditation, mindfulness, counselling, the power of empathic communication (positive suggestions and visual imagery) and biofeedback.
The astonishing part of the story for me was not that these treatments merely “feel” effective but that over and over again she demonstrates from research that such treatments can physically change our bodies. For example, people who regularly meditate actually grow their cerebral cortex. In other words, the physical structure of their brains changes – in a good way!
It is a deeply fascinating book, and not only if you happen to be suffering from an illness and are wondering what you could do to help yourself. A chapter entitled “Fountain of youth” explores how social isolation is as dangerous for our health as obesity, inactivity or smoking, possibly even more dangerous than these. Alongside this information she reports that in the US 32 million people live alone-27% of households. In 1985 another American survey showed that in general people said they had three confidants, when this study was repeated in 2004, 25% of people said they had none! (This theme is also very fully explored in the book “The Village Effect” which I have already blogged about Book Review: The Village Effect: why face to face contact matters by Susan Pinker ).
Every chapter had something new and thought-provoking, it would be hard to choose a favourite but from my personal perspective chapter 7 “Talk to me: why caring matters” gave me ideas I could immediately apply to those I care for. Chapter 9 “Enjoy the Moment: the Power of Meditation” was also extremely helpful. Mindfulness and meditation has been shown to reduce chronic pain and anxiety, also to reduce stress and improve our quality of life. It has been shown that when monks meditate their brains are highly organised and coordinated with neurons firing together and an increase of activity in the left prefrontal cortex which is the seat of positive thoughts and emotions.
Of course, as I’ve already said, some Christians have heebie-jeebies over the subject of meditation and mindfulness simply because those monks may not necessarily be Christians, they may be Buddhists. This book is written by someone who is not a Christian so she clearly doesn’t feel any need to justify meditation but she does tell the story of how a Buddhist medical researcher Jon Kabat Zim, recognised that many people were missing out on the benefits of meditation because they were put off by the religious baggage that surrounded it. So he stripped it of its spiritual aspects, developing a program called MBSR ‘mindfulness-based stress reduction’.
To keep this blog from becoming too long (and also because some readers will not be interested in where spirituality fits in to all this) I will write a second reflection about how the book challenged me on a spiritual level. In her final chapter, Marchant turns her attention to whether or not religious experience and belief can also affect our bodies and our brains. I confess to feeling nervous about what conclusions she might reach but suffice to say that while she wasn’t entirely ‘converted’ neither does she debunk or reject the value of spiritual belief.
To conclude this review though, I heartily recommend this intriguing and well-written book. I read it as someone who teaches people skills designed to enhance their mental well-being (the Keeping Health in Mind Course http://www.keepinghealthinmind.org.uk) and I found in it much good common sense as well as a great deal of fascinating science.