The Sciences

Delusions About Self-Healing

The IntersectionBy Chris MooneyJan 25, 2011 6:11 PM

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There is a powerful New York Times oped today by medical researcher Richard Sloan of Columbia, debunking the idea that positive thinking will help you overcome serious illnesses:

It’s true that in some respects we do have control over our health. By exercising, eating nutritious foods and not smoking, we reduce our risk of heart disease and cancer. But the belief that a fighting spirit helps us to recover from injury or illness goes beyond healthful behavior. It reflects the persistent view that personality or a way of thinking can raise or reduce the likelihood of illness.

Most powerful is the point that if we encourage the idea that certain people heal themselves through power of mind, we're also in effect encouraging the idea that certain people who don't get better have failed in some way:

Very early in my career, I participated in a study of young women who were hospitalized and awaiting the results of biopsies to determine if they had cervical cancer. While I was interviewing one of my patients, the biopsy results of the woman in the next bed came back to her — negative. The fortunate woman’s father, who was there with her, said in relief: “We’re good people. We deserve this.” It was a perfectly understandable response, but what should my patient have said to herself when her biopsy came back positive? That she got cancer because she wasn’t a good person? It is difficult enough to be injured or gravely ill. To add to this the burden of guilt over a supposed failure to have the right attitude toward one’s illness is unconscionable. Linking health to personal virtue and vice not only is bad science, it’s bad medicine.

You can read the whole oped here. I was a bit surprised that Sloan does not expressly deal directly with the topic of stress. My understanding is that it really can be bad for you, and this is presumably something a change in mindset could help to reduce--it would be interesting to hear Sloan's take.

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