Marchant is a popular science writer with a PhD in genetics and medical microbiology who has written for New Scientist, Nature, the Guardian, and the Smithonian . She is rigorously skeptical of alternative therapies and the miraculous; however she isn’t dismissive of the fact that people are sometimes helped by them. Cure: A Journey into the Science of Mind Over Body is her examination of the mind’s power to influence physical health and well being. She reviews various scientific studies, interviews those who have participated in them, and explores what the brain can or cannot do as far as healing our bodies.
Marchant observes a well known phenomena in contemporary medical research: the placebo effect. She cites research which shows that in some instances, a placebo works even if the person knows they are getting the placebo, though it impacts symptoms rather than the disease itself (still valuable for quality of life). She also notes the ‘nocebo effect’ where a person’s health declines because of the belief that something is causing them harm (i.e. believing you were poisoned, or had a curse put on you). Placebos can be a powerful counter medicine to these psychosomatic ailments and empathetic patient care does make a real difference in prognosis. So Marchant admits some value in alternative medicines:
Therapies such as homeopathy and Reiki contain no active ingredient and show no benefit in rigorous clinical trials. They are based on principles that from a scientific point of view are nonsensical—almost certainly do not work in the way they claim they do. But with long, personal consultations and empathetic care, they are perfectly honed to maximize placebo responses. For that reason they probably do provide real relief, particularly for chronic ailments that conventional medicine is not well equipped to treat (39)
Marchant examines the benefits of combining a placebo with Pavlovian conditioning, the benefits of cognitive therapies in fighting Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, hypnosis in treating Irritable Bowl Syndrome, and the benefits virtual reality for Pain management. In the latter part of the book she talks about how stress affects health, the benefits of meditation the importance of relationships and positive outlook for aging well, and how manipulating the vagus nerve through electricity may impact our immunity. Her final chapter examines the role of faith in healing, specifically at Lourdes.
Marchant doesn’t believe in miracles and treats religious ritual like a powerful placebo. She does volunteer at Lourdes and record her observations of a worship service she participated in:
I feel out of place amid all the singing and signing. I’ve never attended a Catholic Mass, and I usually try my hardest to avoid religious ceremonies. I get uneasy about the idea of substituting reason and clear thinking for robes, incantations and mysterious higher powers. But at the same time it is beautiful; a hugely impressive assault on the senses. (266).
Later she writes, “Lourdes didn’t turn me into a believer. But after attending this giant underground service, I’m struck by the physical force that religious belief can have” (227). She sees the power of religion to effect people’s health, for good or ill, in mechanisms like stress and ritual. She prefers a naturalistic interpretation of how healing occurs—a scientific explanation of how healing took place invalidates it as a miracle (which she doesn’t believe in anyway).
I have participated and benefited from healing prayers, but I am also aware of studies on intercessory prayer that show no significant change, and reveal faith healers’ success rates as equal to that of a placebo (about 29%). I don’t share Marchant’s skepticism of the miraculous. I do, however, appreciate her well-documented look at the science behind the power of the mind to influence physical health. Her bias towards a rigorous look at the evidence is what made me want to read the book. I especially found the studies of the placebo effect in the first part of the book interesting, and this is a fun read. I recommend this for anyone interested in our current understanding of the brain’s ability to effect our body. We are fearfully and wonderfully made. I give this four stars.
Note: I received this book from Random House and Crown Publishers through the Blogging For Books Program in exchange for my honest review.