February 16, 2016


All in the mind? How research is proving the true healing power of the placebo : Jo Marchant, author of Cure, explains why the mind's ability to heal the body is now being taken seriously by scientists who question alternative medicine (Ian Tucker. 15 February 2016, The Guardian)

Why is there so much resistance in the scientific community to the idea that the mind could have a role in healing?

Part of it is an understandable reaction to those exaggerated claims of cures. Sceptics may fear that allowing any role for the mind will encourage people to believe in the pseudoscientific ideas of alternative therapists. But there's more to it than that. Ever since Descartes, scientists have viewed physical, measurable matter as more "real", a more suitable topic for scientific enquiry, than subjective emotions and beliefs. I think that has led to an ingrained bias that because our thoughts aren't "real", they can't influence the physical body. This makes no sense from a neuroscience perspective - where you can't have a thought without a concurrent physical change in the neurons of the brain - but it causes a kneejerk reaction against the idea that our mental state might affect our health.

Is there also a problem with how drug trials are designed?

A trial that tests a new treatment against a placebo is perfect for testing the direct biochemical action of a drug. But it can't assess other elements of care, such as social support or stress reduction and positive expectation, because they are present in the placebo group too. There are studies suggesting that these components matter: patients with irritable bowel syndrome have greater relief from their symptoms when their practitioner is empathic rather than cold; patients with acid reflux disease do dramatically better after a 42-minute consultation compared to an 18-minute one. We need to take an evidence-based approach to studying these social and psychological aspects of care, just as we do when testing how drugs work.

Posted by at February 16, 2016 3:27 PM