I’ve long been fascinated by the body-mind relationship, and a few years ago this book awakened my curiosity. Written by two scientists (psychoanalyst Darian Leader and biologist & science philosopher David Corfield), it draws from the latest science as well as forgotten finds from medical history, to explore the way our minds influence our health.
Do you remember the last time you went to see your doctor, and he/she really spent the time to examine you in detail, had a lengthy conversation about your life and what big events might happened before the onset of your symptoms? … yeah, me neither.
According to the authors, over the last few centuries, Western medicine has evolved to understand a great deal about the body in a scientific way; which has allowed it to develop consistent treatments for many known maladies.
But there is a downside: as science views the body as separate from the mind, the more we explore the body as a “mechanical” system, the less we seem to see the person a whole. We have lost sight of the mind-body connection – despite overwhelming evidence that our thoughts have the greatest influence on our health.
The big idea
I certainly wouldn’t blame doctors who mostly do a fine job (I should know, my Dad is one- hello Dad!); but it seems clear that the combined influence of national health systems and pharmaceutical companies have put pressure on doctors to show demonstrable, quick results.
A patient’s illness has to be identified as quickly as possible as a specific “syndrome” or “disease”, for the appropriate medication to be prescribed promptly (and for it to be counted into statistics).
However in some cases, treating the disease rather than the whole person doesn’t work. By involving different consultants at different stages of the process, we can sometimes miss the forest for the tree – hence the growing number of people who turn to alternative medicine for illnesses that can’t be resolved by their GP because their collection of symptoms doesn’t tick the tight boxes, or because they just don’t feel listened to.
The scope of the book is wide, but here are just a few examples that illustrate how our minds might affect our overall health:
- The timing of illness: a not insignificant number of people die on dates that are significantly relevant to their personal history: the anniversary of the death of a parent or spouse is a common one. Interestingly, 3 of the first 5 American presidents died on 4th July; and Elizabeth I, the “Virgin Queen”, died on the day of the Annunciation of Mary.
- Sudden or “voodoo” death (the sudden and unexplained death in a previously healthy person) : accounts for 25% of death in America. There are numerous cases of people who believed they were under a curse, and died precisely at the date predicted (usually of cardiac arrest).
- Different cultures have different illnesses: different maladies come up in different countries according to what we envision our body (this is true for both physical and mental illnesses – there are fascinating books on ‘ethnopsychiatry’, which isn’t mentioned here).
- Loneliness has more impact on life expectancy than obesity or smoking put together (why do we never hear about this?)
- The placebo effect: we’ve all heard of people who get better by taking pills that contain no actual medicine. Turns out it works for surgery too, in cases where the surgeon just make a cut but didn’t actually operate.
Why it will change your life
Whether you are well or have concerns, this book will have you think twice before popping pills. Not to say pills don’t work – they do – but asking yourself what factors in your personal history might have created your illness might also empower you and help quicken your recovery.