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The Cure WithinReview - The Cure Within
A History of Mind-Body Medicine
by Anne Harrington
W. W. Norton, 2008
Review by Diana Soeiro
Sep 2nd 2008 (Volume 12, Issue 36)

The expression "mind-body" in this book's subtitle makes one think that we already know what the book is about. And the title "The Cure Within" seems to confirm it: the mind-body connection is important, the cure is within and we all have the power to heal ourselves. But this is not what the book is about and moreover it will make you realize why you might have thought that you already knew what the book was about.

Anne Harrington researched for more than ten years in order to write this book (p. 25). She is currently a Chair Professor of History of Science at Harvard University. So this book is a serious academic reflection on what has become a very popular theme, the mind-body relation. Harrington's assumption is that there is such a connection "(...) I have written this book against a background belief that the body is a genuinely mindful entity." (p.24) Harrington's question, as an historian, is that bodily experiences differ now and then. We do not bleed the same way as we did. What is being happy has changed over the centuries, what is suffering and what is being ill has changed and therefore, consequently, what is being cured has also changed. Concerning illness, according to Harrington's view, there has always been the envisioning of a cure based on a mind-body relation. This approach to illness, whether it has taken central stage whether it has been neglected and cast out becoming an alternative, has always existed. So, aside from the traditional approach that has lost credibility and from a standard physicalist approach that lacks existential relevance, there is a third way that "also claims to be rooted in science" and this is the one Harrington tells us about.

Harrington's method to tell us about the history of the mind-body relation is based on six narratives, each corresponding to the six chapters of the book. Briefly: "The Power of Suggestion", "The Body That Speaks", "The Power of Positive Thinking", "Broken By Modern Life", "Healing Ties" and "Eastward Journeys". What exactly is this itinerary?

"The Power of Suggestion"

In France, by the late sixteenth century, one woman was cured of exorcism by plain water (not holy water) highlighting for the first time both a placebo effect and the power of suggestion. (p. 38) By the second half of the seventeenth century there was a growing skepticism in the church on possession. Exorcist Gassner and physician Mesmer started talking about animal magnetism and convulsions took place to handle "evil". Then Puységur claimed that convulsions were not necessary and he developed the trance method. And the French doctor neurologist Charcot came up with hypnotism as a suggested state, the waking sleep, taking it as public performances. According to Charcot, the symptoms of hysteria were as real as those of any organic body, that is, the body could speak. At this point, authority performed healing.

"The Body That Speaks"

Freud, also a neurologist doctor and hypnotist, took this and confirmed that there was more about hysteria than suggestion. The mind had something to do with it. His method was that each individual would be able to hypnotize himself by talking, as if it was a confession in a state of trance. The body shouldn't be a mute narrator and the mind should speak for itself. During World War I, men's hysteria was identified as "shell shock" and hypnosis and psychoanalysis were extensively considering these men. Weizsäcker during the 30s, representing a holist German movement supported by Göering, was also progressing but it did not avenge because on the verge of a new war, the technological response took over – it was faster. The USA focused not so much on the holistic concepts body-mind, but on "the effects of particular psychological factors on particular diseases".  (p. 85) By 1950 psychosomatics had made its way and by he 1970 and 1980 it goes alternative for a while and by the end of the 80s, because cancer patients claimed it, makes a come back. Can positive thinking heal?

"The Power of Positive Thinking"

Cases like Lourdes (1858, sacred water) claimed that faith could heal. Christian Science at a certain point suggested that we will have better health if we think right – the religion of healthy-mindedness also developed by William James. By the end of World War II, Norman Vincent Peale clearly states the power of positive thinking and takes the world by storm. During the 70s the approach becomes a part of holistic medicine, empowering the patients and the placebo effect question is raised again. We have here, healing by faith and the ability to heal ourselves.

"Broken By Modern Life"

By the 60s a new narrative takes place where men is approached in a mechanic way: Men became a broken machine. And is breaking him is stress. The invention of stress is a laboratory experiment by Hans Selye. In a post World War II period, men needed to readjust and traumatic stress was noted. Moreover stress was also taken as something that was cumulative and a readjustment chart was created to determine that. By the end of the 70s we had stress-disorders on one side and infectious diseases on the other (getting less attention), relating stress and the immunitary system. During the 80s and 90s, modern men's existence as broken by stress was deeply rooted in society and widely talked about.

"Healing Ties" and "Eastward Journeys"

The last two chapters can be grouped because they focus on a similar approach. They aim to answer the question "I have everything I need, except people" (p. 180) Social networks, community as social support, intimacy (love), love as a child (as developed by Anne Freud) are attempted answers. Can others heal? Can love heal? As in the 60s the Beatles turned East going on a journey to India (practicing transcendental meditation with Maharishi), in the 2000s Western society turned East. The road was prepared previously by men like Herbert Benson, who domesticates and medicalizes meditation by mid 70s; by Kabat-Zinn who by the 80s introduces the mindfulness-based stress reduction in hospitals and clinics. So during the 60s Nixon promoted a meeting between the USA and China (traditional Chinese medicine consequently). By the 90s, not India or China but Tibet, started hitting the Western society with sitting meditation and the Dalai Lama's presence. Psychologist Richard Davidson started investigating EEG brainwaves while Tibetan monks meditate discovering that they corresponded to a state that was neither being awake nor asleep.

Concluding, Harrington hopes to contribute to the mind-body debate (p. 250) and she definitely sets a ground. For anyone interested in the body-mind relation this is a rare and serious academic research on the topic and a very good starting point to further investigate a specific narrative or personality that interests you. The body and mind relation has more than meets the eye and it is more than a popular belief or an ancient tradition. It has always existed, somehow it has never ceased to exist and the fruits it will bare, only the future can tell.

© 2008 Diana Soeiro

Diana Soeiro works and lives and Lisbon. She is currently pursuing her Philosophy PhD thesis "Colour as shelter; Architecture as care" at the New University of Lisbon. www.linkedin.com/in/DianaSoeiro 


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