25 October 2014

What can the mind-set do to the body?

 That's the question at issue in the recent NYT article by Bruce Grierson "What if Age Is Nothing but a Mind-Set?" covering the work of Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer.  Langer has done various researches where people are "primed" with positive information about their situation - that they have control, are responsible, etc. and seen frequent improvements.

The title study done in 1981 involved bringing a group of men in their 70s into a controlled environment simulating 1959 for 5 days, and then evaluated them on various measures.  In various ways they appeared to be "younger" afterwards - in manual dexterity, in sitting taller.  Other previous studies had led her to this way of thinking about priming:
To Langer, this was evidence that the biomedical model of the day — that the mind and the body are on separate tracks — was wrongheaded. The belief was that “the only way to get sick is through the introduction of a pathogen, and the only way to get well is to get rid of it,” she said, when we met at her office in Cambridge in December. She came to think that what people needed to heal themselves was a psychological “prime” — something that triggered the body to take curative measures all by itself.
If we believe the mind to be the result of a physical process, then I don't see it as too far-fetched to believe that different mind-sets can manifest in different physical outcomes.  This is of course related to placebos generally:
Langer came to believe that one way to enhance well-being was to use all sorts of placebos. Placebos aren’t just sugar pills disguised as medicine, though that’s the literal definition; they are any intervention, benign but believed by the recipient to be potent, that produces measurable physiological changes. Placebo effects are a striking phenomenon and still not all that well understood. Entire fields like psychoneuroimmunology and psychoendocrinology have emerged to investigate the relationship between psychological and physiological processes. Neuroscientists are charting what’s going on in the brain when expectations alone reduce pain or relieve Parkinson’s symptoms. More traditionally minded health researchers acknowledge the role of placebo effects and account for them in their experiments. But Langer goes well beyond that. She thinks they’re huge — so huge that in many cases they may actually be the main factor producing the results.
Now Langer is taking the research to an extreme - setting up a positive situation for women with stage 4 breast cancer, which the medical establishment essentially has no answers for. While it's hard to believe that this will work, it still seems to me to be an avenue worth pursuing.

No comments: