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Mind-Over-Matter In Medicine

[Recently] I came upon a Jan 24 op-ed, “A Fighting Spirit Won’t Change Your Life” by Richard Sloan, Ph.D., of Columbia University’s psychiatry department. Somehow I’d missed this worthwhile piece on the sometimes-trendy notion of mind-over-matter in healing and medicine.

Sloan opens with aftermath of the Tucson shootings:

…Representative Giffords’s husband describes her as a “fighter,” and no doubt she is one. Whether her recovery has anything to do with a fighting spirit, however, is another matter entirely.

He jumps quickly through a history of the mind cure movement in America: From Phineas Quimby’s concept of illness as a product of mistaken beliefs — to William James and “New Thought” ideas — to Norman Vincent Peale’s 1952 “Power of Positive Thinking“ – to more current takes on the matter. These ideas, while popular, are not reality-based.

In his words:

But there’s no evidence to back up the idea that an upbeat attitude can prevent any illness or help someone recover from one more readily. On the contrary, a recently completed study* of nearly 60,000 people in Finland and Sweden who were followed for almost 30 years found no significant association between personality traits and the likelihood of developing or surviving cancer. Cancer doesn’t care if we’re good or bad, virtuous or vicious, compassionate or inconsiderate. Neither does heart disease or AIDS or any other illness or injury.

*Am. J. Epidemiol. (2010) 172 (4): 377–385.

The New York Times printed several letters in response, most of which point to pseudo-evidence on the matter. All the more reason to bolster public education in the U.S. — people won’t be persuaded by charismatic, wishful thinking about healthcare.

It happens I’m a fan of Joan Didion’s. I was so taken by the “Year of Magical Thinking,” in fact, that I read it twice. Irrational responses — and hope — are normal human responses to illness, disappointment, and personal loss. But they’re not science. It’s important to keep it straight.

*This blog post was originally published at Medical Lessons*


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