When it comes to health and well-being, we all know that what goes on in the mind can influence what goes on in the body. Who could doubt, for example, that psychological stress can have a negative impact on one’s physiological function? Positive mind-body interplay can occur, too, and the simple act of anticipating good health can at times promote healing. The question is, at what times?
The therapeutic encounter
Surprisingly, one of the best known catalysts for promoting healing is the interaction that takes place between a healthcare professional and a patient. I’ve written about this healing alliance before, and even humbly suggested that this natural baseline healing process receive more attention in the world of medical research. So imagine my surprise when — babba-bing, babba-boom — I come across a book published this year that provides all of the scientific evidence one could hope for regarding the importance of the therapeutic encounter: The Placebo Response and the Power of Unconscious Healing, by Dr. Richard Kradin. He is an MD, psychoanalyst, and medical researcher. If anyone is going to probe the role of mind-body interactions in maintaining health, who better than a practicing MD who conducts research and is also a psychoanalyst who has co-directed a course at Harvard on Mind/Body Science?
The placebo response
Medical researchers have known about the placebo response for a long time and have been concerned with designing experiments that take this phenomenon into account when attempting to test for the effectiveness of new treatments. This natural tendency toward healing is a distraction, in a way, for researchers, and it must be tested for as rigorously as the effects of the main treatment.
But what is a distraction for some is the core issue for others, and Dr. Kradin systematically goes about demonstrating how the mind can bring about objective, measurable healing responses. People don’t just imagine that they are getting better, they really are getting better.
And he describes how the interaction of healthcare providers and patients is a crucial component of this response. So there you have it: the very act of seeking help from another can enhance acquiring that help. The origins of this response undoubtedly lie in our deep history as social animals, but I’ll leave that part of the story for Dr. Kradin to relate.
If you missed it in last month’s March 9 issue of Parade Magazine, here’s what many were reading over their Sunday a.m. coffee cups: Thoughts Can Heal Your Body, by Robert Moss.
Placebo responses are commonly associated with the modulation of pain, and in the on-line June 26, 2007 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences is this article: Placebo effects on human u-opioid activity during pain. A pharmacologically inert cream was applied to the arms of healthy volunteer patients. In some instances the doctors told the patients that this cream would have no effect on pain. In others, they were told that the cream was a highly effective pain reliever. Same cream in both cases. No possible physical effects. Then a painful heat stimulus was applied, and the researchers measured the analgesic effect on their subjects. They also measured opioid activity in the brain.
And the results? Partly expected, partly wow. Expected: the placebo group reported perceiving less pain. But here’s the amazing part: their brains were behaving differently. Several regions of their brains were responding by altering the pattern of their endogenous opioid activity. They were unconsciously creating a therapeutic effect. Wow.
Mind-body interactions. What will we learn next?