A journey into the science of mind over body
‘Healing thoughts’, the idea that the mind influences the body – is it all just pseudoscience? Miracles we shouldn’t believe in? In her book Cure, British science journalist Jo Marchant provides a critical exploration of this new area. She interviewed scientists who are investigating or have found evidence that our thoughts can ease pain or heal wounds. On Tuesday 1 November she will deliver the annual Tans Lecture at Maastricht University.
After obtaining her PhD in genetics, Jo Marchant became a science journalist. Asked by The Guardian if her scientific experience benefits her writing, she said: “I happen to have a PhD in genetics, but that technical knowledge doesn’t help me when writing about archaeology or physics, and I know some brilliant science writers who have no formal training in science at all.” The crucial thing to become a good science writer is “the right attitude. You need a burning curiosity.”
After several articles in Nature, the New York Times, New Scientist, the Washington Post and two earlier books she published Cure in early 2016. The bestselling book also received praise from critics; New Scientist described it as “sprinkled with the magic dust of an Indiana Jones adventure.”
In Cure Marchant investigates what the mind can really do when it comes to health. “The misunderstandings and false claims were one of the elements that drew me to the topic of mind-body medicine in the first place. The mind influences physiology in many ways – from stress to sexual arousal – so it has always seemed reasonable to me that it might impact health”, she explains in an interview with Scientific American.
It’s a delicate topic; many conventional scientists think of ‘healing thoughts’ and alternative therapies as quackery. Marchant talked to physicians, patients and researchers to find out what the evidence says. She addresses examples like hypnotherapy, reportedly a highly effective treatment for patients with irritable bowel syndrome, or mindfulness training for people who are suffering from depression. And, as she points out in a recent opinion piece in the New York Times, there is evidence that some people benefit from taking placebo painkillers. A key ingredient is expectation: the greater our belief that a treatment will work, the better we’ll respond.
In this way, according to the Wall Street Journal, “Cure points a way toward a future in which the two camps [mainstream medicine and alternative therapies] might work together.”
The Tans Lecture is organised every year to honour Sjeng Tans, the founder of Maastricht University.