Posted by: cg00n | June 6, 2008

The Mind-Body Issue

About a week ago I asked what you think about the mind-body relationship when it comes to recovering from some physical illness or other. Quite a number of replies trickled in over the last few days. There is general consensus that a positive state of mind is bound to help one’s quality of life even if it does no more than that. A few believe that a positive mind set, especially when associated with prayer, meditation, self-hypnosis or the like, plays an active role in the healing process. Many replies pointed out that reducing the amount of stress chemicals in the bloodstream, boosting endorphin production and so on is bound to be beneficial physically. At least one reply suggested that if a placebo can help healing to take place then logically it ought to be possible to produce the same effect by other non-physical means.

On the whole I agree with all this. I don’t think there is any “supernatural” effect involved but there are a few mechanisms that may be initiated by the mind which contribute to physical healing. There is still considerable scientific debate, sometimes quite heated, as to what works and what does not. Topping the list of controversies (not surprisingly) is prayer: some studies say it definitely works, others that it definitely does not and quite a few (like this summary) feel that the jury is still out. More surprisingly there is debate about the placebo effect, an issue that I thought was long since settled.

Of course there are many people who make all sorts of claims without any references to the underlying justifications. The book I’ve been reading, The Healing Code, is pretty bad in this respect. There are many instances of “studies have shown…”, “science has proved…” and at least one of the classic “it is simply a fact that…” with no references in sight. That certainly doesn’t make the book a waste of time:  it collects together a number of interesting approaches to improving general health, fitness and psychological state but from a scientific point of view it lacks rigour.  The book does reference a 1995 publication by Dr. Bernie Siegel: Peace, Love and Healing: the Path to Self-Healing.  Siegel’s work with breast cancer patients is interesting. At one time he coined the term “Exceptional Cancer Patient” to describe one who overcame their cancer more effectively than expected due to their positive self-healing attitude. However a subsequent study which he co-authored revealed no significant differences when such patients were compared to a control group. The study concluded:

While the program may have beneficial effects on quality of life, this study does not indicate a significant favorable impact on survival with breast cancer or that the program is serving as a social locus for the gathering of exceptional survivors.

It seems that there is no conclusive proof that a more positive mind set will help to cure a case of cancer, but there is every indication that it can’t hurt and you’ll enjoy life more in the mean time. That’s probably a good enough excuse to be an optimist.



  1. You summed it up well … I think the jury is still out. It has been proven that there are lifestyle issues that certainly impact health.

  2. […] of cancer.  Finally, you may recall some months ago that I asked you what you thought about the mind-body connection:  a recent article in New Scientist talks about the nocebo effect – the dark side of placebo […]

  3. […] of you may recall a longish discussion we had on these pages regarding the mind-body issue.  Part of the reason I got interested in all that was something I read, so recently I got around […]

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