Saturday, April 5, 2008

The Mind-Body Connection

Anne Harrington, a Harvard professor, has written a really interesting book about the history of Western science attempting to understand the effect our mind has on our body. The Cure Within: a history of mind-body medicine is not an attempt to prove or debunk any theory, but instead looks at the way scientists have tried to analyze the extent to which a person's mental processes (conscious and subconscious) can change the actual physiology of their body. Harrington begins with one of the earliest examples of this - exorcism - and continues on to discuss the study and practice of hypnotism (the physician Franz Mesmer actually began work with hypnotism when he was investigating a German exorcist in the 1770s). She also talks about placebos, psychoanalysis, meditation, biofeedback, Lourdes, Christian Scientists, and qi. What's really fascinating about this book is that it shows you the extent to which these studies and practices have been absorbed into popular culture and belief. It's peppered with common phrases - 'Type A personalities', 'animal magnetism', 'fight or flight' - that all rose directly from research. The case studies Harrington uses to illustrate her points are all very interesting as well, and in some instances I was disappointed not to know more about the outcome of the patient's difficulties (sometimes the researchers themselves did not follow up, and sometimes they actively left unsatisfactory results out of their reports). This is a very informative book, regardless of your opinions on mind-body medicine.

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