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The Cure Within: A Book Commentary

Sophie F's picture

At a time when biomedicine is becoming increasingly more specialized and technology driven a book about mind-body medicine is refreshing. Anne Harrington's book, The Cure Within explores mind-boy medicine in a historical context, examining the disparate, but related branches of mind-body medicine and the contexts in which they were borne. Using the very history from which mind-body medicine grew, Harrington probes the genesis of illness and speaks to the shortcomings of the paradigm that is modern biomedicine or "physicalist medicine." Harrington seeks not to bully the reader into an argument about the relationship between mind and body, rather line-by-line she paints a persuasive picture of the inextricability of mind and body rooted in her historical paradigm. In the structure of the book, using the premise of mind-body medicine as a series of narratives, Harrington challenges the reader to reconsider convenient, but often myopic, explanations about illness and healing.

The triumphs of modern biomedicine should not be undermined and need not be pitted against an alternative and potentially complementary set of ideas and ideals. In some ways Harrington bemoans the reductionist nature of medicine, as we know it. And yet describes the mind-body paradigm as a series of related narratives rather than a single, amorphous entity. In Biology 202, the story of the relatedness between mind and body unfurled over the course of the semester. And by the conclusion of the semester, it was evident that brain does in fact equal behavior, necessitating a closer look at how unwell bodies relate to unwell minds. As was revealed in Biology 202, pain, for example, is the I-function interpretation of signals received from the nervous system, which says, "something is amiss." Pain is not itself the signal. And given that animals without neo-cortex do not seem to experience pain, as we know it, pain is unique to animals with certain components of the nervous system intact. This is but one powerful argument for the connection between brain and body. As we also discussed in Biology 202, there is no absolute measure of pain. Indeed, this notion corresponds well to Harrington's narratives about mind and body. She recalls one story in which someone with a terminal illness was told there was a cure for his illness. And when it was given to him, he recovered from the illness and went on with his life. Subsequently, an article in a newspaper recanted the efficacy of this life-saving therapy. Upon reading the article the man who had been "cured" by the new therapy relapsed and shortly thereafter died. While one case is not generalizable, it is illustrative of a central tenet of mind-body medicine, which is that the mind has great power to both limit and expand the possibilities of an individual.

And this tenet of mind-body medicine speaks to the words of Emily Dickinson:
The brain is wider than the sky,
For, put them side by side,
The one the other will include
With ease, and you beside.

Harrington sees mind-body medicine as a way to rethink the nature of what it means to be human. The ways in which we perceive ourselves manifests in our bodies. By examining "bodies that behave badly" Harrington came to understand that how we conceptualize illness affects how we experience it. And this is, in part, what we spoke about in Biology 202 and to what Dickinson alludes. The power of the nervous system is in its ability to take inputs both from within the nervous system and the environment and subject those inputs to a series of analyses before producing a relevant output. In terms of illness, much of how we perceive ourselves when we are sick is rooted in the cultural construction of the body as a machine that malfunctions in certain places and has corresponding remedies. These remedies often do not take into account the individual or her experience, history, perceptions, etc.

Mind-body medicine has, in many ways, garnered the popular imagination. It's name came into being in the 1990s and the fascination with it has only grown. There must be something in that speaks to people argues Harrington. For Harrington, the appeal of mind-body medicine was in the stories. Mind-body medicine not only allows, but also encourages a study of illness as part of the entire being, which includes the body, and the brain, within which resides the mind. Harrington refers to, "finding alternatives to our fractured approaches to our humanness." It is in the story of people who are ill and in the stories of mind-body medicine itself that Harrington sees a resolution to the alienation that is often felt by the sick people and their loved ones. The alienation stems, at least in part, to our cultural mystification of the body and of medicine as a domain of expertise and specialization, where there can be but limited capacity to "know" the causes of disease and the appropriate course of treatment. What is more knowable is experience, both our own and that of others and the threads that tie us together, despite differing realities. Mind-body medicine seeks to unite the body and the brain, so as not to encourage the fractured senses of ourselves and alienation from our bodies.

Illnesses, such as what has come to be known as mental illness, are states of the brain. As was discussed in Biology 202, the brain is a part of the body, a physical entity; this necessitates an understanding of mental illness rooted in the connectedness between mind and body. Mental illness should be treated like any other illness. Harrington lobbies for an expanded vision of bodily illness as being fundamentally connected to our experiences and our histories. She writes about the development of the type A personality. Her discussion is premised on the idea that, "the body is a mindful entity." She explores the possibility that what have come to be known as the stresses of modern life are contributing to our physical and emotional well being, as the two are connected. She explores the idea that the movement towards recognizing how our behaviors are linked to our bodies, including our brains. As these are inseparable, expanding disease etiology to include job stress and past military service give way to new understanding of illness and mind-body connectedness. She discusses at length the ways in which the body grapples with external stresses and while messages that something is amiss within the body may not immediately manifest, the body tallies these stresses, which at some point come to the fore, often in the form of chronic illnesses, or emotional distress. These chronic illnesses are as much the domain of society as they are of the individual. The body sometimes betrays things that our minds do not permit. In the context of the history of mind-body medicine, Harrington discusses the stresses of modern life that are literally making us sick.

While Harrington is quick to concede that modern biomedicine has buoyed its ability to heal people. She also writes, "There may be other ways other than those of phsycalist medicine by which to heal the body of the real disorders that ail it." In this statement, she drives home one of the central themes of her book, which is that there are fundamental gaps in the ability of "physicalist medicine," by it's very nature, to heal people of that which ails them, which is as much in the mind as the body. Without a an approach to the body as a mind-body entity, the evaluation, treatment and follow-up of a patient in a biomedical context is completely outside the realm of the individual. This enhances the dehumanizing experience of being ill, which is often accompanied by feelings of anxiety, fear, and social isolation. Harrington's arguments mesh effortlessly with the topics discussed in Biology 202 and enhanced my understanding of the brain, body and behavior link.

Harrington, Anne. The Cure Within: The History of Mind-Body Medicine. W.W. Norton & Company: New York, 2008