Stay up to date with notifications from The Independent

Notifications can be managed in browser preferences.

Cure: A Journey Into the Science of Mind Over Body by Jo Marchant, book review

Marchant looks at how the mind and the body affect one another, and how alternative medicine can be harnessed for good

Mary Dejevsky
Thursday 17 March 2016 15:33 GMT
Marchant visits Lourdes and considers faith as a source of healing
Marchant visits Lourdes and considers faith as a source of healing (Getty Images)

It is a measure of the speed with which science, and especially medical science, has been advancing that a book clearly conceived as a challenge to the mainstream seems far less maverick now that it has seen the light of day.

This is not just because Jo Marchant makes her case so cogently that it is hard to disagree, but because the central point of ‘Cure’ - that the mind and the body affect one another far more than has generally been accepted by modern Western medicine - has been gaining acceptance among clinicians, even if it has yet to bring about positive changes in approaches to treatment. Her thesis is that, while proponents of alternative medicine, in its many and varied forms, have long been regarded in the Western world as quacks (or saviours, depending on your point of view), the claims for its positive effects should not be dismissed, and these can indeed be harnessed for good. The argument has been reopened - and transformed - above all by brain scanning, which has enabled specialists for the first time to track the neurological functions of living people.

Marchant looks at the positive effects of placebos - that may have no effect on the progression of a physical illness, but can relieve pain and reduce, though probably not eliminate, the need for harmful and addictive drugs. Time was when such beneficial effects were dismissed as “all in the mind”; now, they can be proved by physical changes in the brain. Marchant considers the value of psychological support, and simple “caring”, which can reduce the need for aggressive (and expensive) intervention, not just in childbirth. She describes the value of distraction as a means of dealing with pain, and the possible impact of trauma on the immune system. She visits Lourdes and considers faith as a source of healing. And in a particularly acute chapter, she looks at fatigue, and the fierce disputes that broke out about treatment for ME.

Many patients and their advocates took fierce issue with the notion that ME was “only” psychological. When the brain, as the scans seem to say, overrules the body, Marchant argues, the illness is all too real. The author has a gift for writing that is both clear and vivid, and communicates complex ideas in a way that is comprehensible and uncondescending. She admits to scepticism about much hypnotism, only to revise her view after talking to patients whose irritable bowel syndrome has been relieved. There are aspects I would like to have learned more about. One concerns the cultural specificity of placebos; another - the people for whom placebos and some common “mind over matter” techniques do not work. Who are they, and why? In all, though, this is a satisfying book, made all the more so by evidence that establishment attitudes may be changing.

Almost as Marchant’s book arrived on my desk, a notice dropped into my mailbox about a new report from the medical think-tank, the King’s Fund. It “shows that the psychological problems associated with physical health conditions, and vice versa, are costing the NHS more than £11 billion a year, and care is less effective than it could be”. It cites many of the areas also highlighted in ‘Cure’, and calls, as Marchant does, for the interplay of mind and body to be taken seriously, not just as a source of problems, but of potential solutions, too. This is surely an area of medicine whose time has to come.

Canongate, £16.99. Order at £14.99 inc. p&p from the Independent Bookshop

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in