“Cure”: The Placebo Effect, Medical TLC, Plus

Marchant has developed a powerful and critically needed conceptual bridge for those who are frustrated with pseudoscientific explanations of alternative therapies but intrigued by the mind’s potential power to both cause and treat chronic, stress-related conditions. Publishers Weekly, regarding the Jo Marchant’s Cure

…I would recommend this book to anybody who has a mind and a body. Henry Marsh, author of Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death, and Brain Surgery 

The new book Cure: A Journey into the Science of Mind Over Body by science journalist Jo Marchant, PhD, has received significant praise.

Jennifer Senior, New York Times:

Two things separate ‘Cure’ from other books of this type.
First, Ms. Marchant writes well, which is never a guarantee in this genre; you often must make a choice between authors who understand science but can’t write, and authors who can write but don’t understand science.
Second, Ms. Marchant has chosen very moving characters to show us the importance of the research she discusses — we forget that those who turn to alternative medicine are often people in extremis — and she possesses an equal flair for finding inspirational figures. I will always like a book, at least a little, if it mentions a 102-year-old Costa Rican woman who can recite a six-minute Pablo Neruda poem from memory.

The aspect of Cure receiving the most attention, though, is Marchant’s look at the placebo effect. It’s actually Senior’s favorite part, she reports, and Susannah Cahalan (New York Post) writes an entire article on it.

Here’s some of what Senior says on the subject:

Did you know, for instance, that there are placebo trials involving fake surgery? Surgery! (Not with a general anesthetic. But still.) Or that large-pill placebos work better than small ones? (Which is funny if you think about it, considering they are equally inert.) Or that placebos sometimes work even when we know they’re placebos? (There is, correspondingly, a niche market for placebos online.)
And that’s just the kid stuff. There’s also evidence suggesting that placebos affect the immune system, not just the subjective experience of pain.
‘It isn’t trickery, wishful thinking or all in the mind,’ Ms. Marchant writes, when explaining the biology of the placebo effect. ‘It is a physical mechanism, as concrete as the effects of any drug.’ What we are swallowing with any pill is essentially an idea: That we will feel better. This belief alone is often enough to trigger the release of our body’s natural endorphins, or dopamine, or whatever other chemical our body was expecting to make or consume if we’d taken an actual drug.

Then there’s Marchant’s look at alternative treatments for chronic illnesses. Publishers Weekly states, “The idea of the brain as ‘central governor’ offers a possible framework for improving functional disorders such as chronic fatigue syndrome, irritable bowel syndrome, and depression by recalibrating the relationship between mind and body.”

And Senior draws an apt conclusion on which our collective gut instincts can probably agree: “If there is one lesson to be drawn from ‘Cure,’ it is this: For the ailing, there is no substitute for face time with someone who cares about your fate. Is Western medicine conducive to such radical intimacy? No. Doctors are forever rushed, harried, swamped. But considering that tenderness costs us nothing, it may be the easiest fix we’ve got.”

A “deceptively simple idea,” furthermore, that Senior calls “one of the most powerful in the book” is thus worth closing with: “Sometimes the difference between feeling well and feeling awful is simply a matter of where we direct our attention.”

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