Does your Mind Influence Illness?

Every day I scour the Internet for interesting news about the mind, body, psychology,…pretty much anything that this blog is about. As I was cruising around today, I found an article on Discovery, that summarized the biggest study on how the mind set of cancer patients influences their recovery or lack thereof. Now, before reading any further, what do you think?

In his study, James Coyne found that emotional states have no bearing on survival rates among head and neck cancer patients. Or, to be more precise, no statistical correlation has been found between mind-set and health. Once again, math triumphs over human experience to show us that our bodies and our minds are really not connected…or are they?!

Let’s take a closer look at this study then, shall we? First off, I personally have a problem with quantifying my emotional state into numbers ranging from 1 to 4. In order to apply statistics to a whole population of course, it is necessary to do so. But keep in mind that already verbalizing emotions is tough, as they are a visceral experience and thus no amount of words can really convey a feeling. Here is a little test for you: Get a couple of your friends together, each one with a piece of paper, and have them write down their associations to two words: Sex, Education. Compare the results and notice how words have very different meanings for different people. As such, how can a whole sentence (“I feel sad”) mean different things for the different participants. Right, that is the first thing.

Let’s look a little further. At the bottom of the study it says that while 84% of cancer patients believe their mind set influences their illness, only 26% of oncologists agree. Some time ago, I read a study about how mind sets influence our behaviours. Specifically, two school teachers were each sent to teach a group of kids. One teacher was told that the class consisted of very gifted children eager to learn, the other that this was a group of challenged learners. At the end of the lesson, and although both groups of kids were on the same academic level, the teacher who thought he/she was teaching gifted children got more work done in a better atmosphere than the other teacher.

What does that mean? Doctors are people of authority to us, and as such we tend to accept what they say as “law”. So, if the doctor does not believe that my mind can help me, how then can I? Another study showed that when doctors thought they were giving real medication when they passing out placebos, the placebos worked a lot better, simply because the doctor fully believed in it.

So, wouldn’t it be interesting to see what happened if we made doctors believe that the mind set is important in determining the outcome of an illness? What would happen then?

This study for me, while valuable and very true in it own field, is largely a testament to the fact that we still approach medicine with a very mechanistic mind set. Even though we are humans, for doctors i always think we are nothing more than a very complicated car they don’t really know that much about. They fiddle and tweak things, and hope for the best, really!

I believe that when it comes to studying emotions and the mind set of individuals, it is important to note that it is just that: a study of individuals. How can we presume that the mind set of one individual is the same as that of any other. If we all had the same mind set, neurology, and outlook on life, how would we ever progress, how would individual like Albert Einstein come up with their ideas, and how would spontaneous regression in cancer happen (of course, we don’t know how, but I am sure it must be something we can make a pill for!!).

Science is important, yet it limits itself too much. That goes for medicine, psychology, and most of the other fields dealing with humans. We aim for a purely rational approach to irrational matters, so no wonder we don’t understand it. Maybe we should make allowances for the fact that in some cases, the scientific approach is not useful, and limits us severely.

And finally, just think about the hypnotic message this study sends. Do I really want Cancer patients around the world to think:”There, i thought I could do it, but obviously I am screwed”? Can Mr Coyne really stand behind that and say that the mind set has never influenced the course of the illness??
What do you think?


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