The Mind-Body Story

Review of The Cure Within: A History of Mind-Body Medicine by Anne Harrington

Nancy Waring
1 March 2008

The Cure Within: A History of Mind-Body Medicine
By Anne Harrington
W.W. Norton & Company, 2007; 354 pp.; $25.95 (cloth)

An ethereal lady in white leads a peasant girl to a freshwater spring behind a grotto in the village of Lourdes, France, in 1858. Scores of villagers soon describe healings after drinking the water, and two decades of seemingly miraculous cures later, the Papacy recognizes Lourdes as a sacred place of healing and pilgrimage.

Across the ocean in Portland, Maine, a chronic invalid visits clockmaker and sometime mesmerist Phineas Parkhurst Quimby, who persuades her that she can will herself to become well. Soon, a restored-to-health Mary Baker Eddy climbs 182 steps to the dome of Portland’s city hall. In the 1870s, Eddy establishes the Christian Science Church and publishes Science and Health, espousing her conviction that illness is an illusion people can overcome through prayer and guidance from a Christian Science “practitioner.”

Fast-forward nearly a century, when New York City preacher Norman Vincent Peale lifts millions of spirits around the country with the 1952 publication of The Power of Positive Thinking, whose opening imperative, “Believe in yourself! Have faith in your abilities…,” resounds throughout this best-seller.

A decade or so later, Norman Cousins, the editor of the Saturday Review, is nearly paralyzed from ankylosing spondylitis, a degenerative disease that breaks down the fibrous tissue holding the body’s cells together. With his doctor’s support, Cousins jettisons conventional medical treatment in favor of Marx Brothers films, reruns from the television show Candid Camera, humorous literature, and powerful injections of vitamin C. Within weeks he is symptom-free. In 1976, the New England Journal of Medicine publishes Cousins’ account of self-healing, an expanded version of which becomes the best-seller, and now classic, Anatomy of an Illness.

These women and men and their stories, crossing centuries, continents, and cultures, populate Professor Anne Harrington’s account of the “power of positive thinking,” one of the six narrative templates through which Harrington, a medical historian and chair of the History of Science Department at Harvard, tells the cultural history of mind–body medicine in her new book, The Cure Within: A History of Mind–Body Medicine.

Harrington chose stories as the vehicle for her cultural history of mind–body medicine, she tells us, because she believes “this is the best way to carve the subject up at its joints.” In each of the narratives—“The Power of Suggestion,” “The Body That Speaks,” “The Power of Positive Thinking,” “Broken by Modern Life,” “Healing Ties,” and “Eastward Journeys”—her approach is as interdisciplinary as it is narrative. Professor Harrington seems equally comfortable in the domains of science, medicine and medical research, religion, and popular culture. In “The Power of Suggestion,” she connects the dots between seventeenth-century priests wrestling Satan out of possessed souls; eighteenth-century physician Franz Anton Mesmer’s convulsion-inducing and allegedly curative “animal magnetism”; and the placebo effect, regarded as trickery in the early part of the twentieth century, and later as a legitimate form of suggestive psychotherapy.

Also striking is Harrington’s account, in “Healing Ties,” of the low incidence of cardiac infarction in the tightly knit community of Roseto, Pennsylvania, in the 1960s, a story that lends homespun credence to cardiac health expert Dr. Dean Ornish’s 1998 book, Love & Survival: The Scientific Basis for the Healing Power of Intimacy.

Harrington concludes the “positive thinking” narrative with a connection that feels at once revelatory and carefully reasoned: the phenomena of the Lourdes healings came to medical fruition in the placebo (meaning “I shall please” in Latin) effect. She points to dramatic evidence that placebos produce “real” effects from an early 1990s controlled trial of arthroscopic knee surgery. Half of the participants underwent the usual procedure, while the other half had their knees opened and closed without any therapeutic cutting or scraping. The placebo group got better and stayed better, even after being told that they had not had “real” surgery. Placebo, she suggests, seems to be “the faith cure of our time and indeed the key to making sense of all faith cures, past and present.”

Harrington is clearly at home with the placebo effect. Indeed, it was the subject of her first deep foray into mind–body medicine. In the 1990s, as a member of a MacArthur Foundation research team commissioned to study mind–body interactions, Harrington received the group’s go-ahead to do a literature review of placebo, and subsequently edited The Placebo Effect: An Interdisciplinary Inquiry (Harvard University Press, 1997). It was lauded by the New England Journal of Medicine as important for researchers “involved in all aspects of clinical pharmacology and therapeutics.”

Among Harrington’s six narratives, “Eastward Journeys” is especially compelling, because it is on fast-forward right now. As Harrington writes, “There is perhaps no other place in contemporary American mind–body medicine where extraordinary personalities and high-profile moments dominate like they do here; no other place where questions about cultural significance—rather than just scientific and medical validity—matter more.”

Indeed, who would have thought that twenty-first century Western neuroscientists and the Dalai Lama would be discussing the potential of Buddhist practices to enhance well-being, and collaborating in efforts to determine the effect of meditation on brain function and structure? Laying the groundwork for these conversations, Harrington notes, was the 1970s medicalization of transcendental meditation, and then of vipassana, or mindfulness mediation, reflected in Dr. Herbert Benson’s TM-based relaxation response and Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn’s highly successful, vipassana-based Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program at UMass Medical School. Harrington is perfectly positioned to reflect on the current East–West mind–body dialogues. She served as a panelist in the first U.S. meeting of neuroscientists with the Dalai Lama, at MIT in 2003, and was co-editor of The Dalai Lama at MIT, the volume reporting on the two-day meeting.

Also in this chapter is a satisfying dose of the international politics of mind–body medicine. Those of us old enough to remember President Nixon’s diplomatic missions to Peking in the early 1970s may also recall that New York Times columnist James Reston’s emergency appendectomy in a Chinese hospital was big news too. Reston, in Peking to cover the proceedings, consented to acupuncture treatment for post-surgical pain, and after returning to the U.S. he wrote a front-page article delightfully titled, “Now, Let Me Tell You about My Appendectomy in Peking.”

A flurry of American interest in traditional Chinese medicine was set in motion. But if acupuncture was catalytic, Harrington reminds us that it doesn’t belong in the smorgasbord of mind–body medicine interventions, because the patient’s mind is not a key component. Reston simply cooperated while the acupuncturist inserted the needles of his profession into select meridians to mobilize the mysterious pain-quelling energy called qi. (Qigong, on the other hand, does fall under the rubric of mind–body medicine, because the student or patient practices directing his or her qi through mental concentration and choreographed body movements, under the supervision of a teacher or healer.)

Curiously, had Reston been stricken with appendicitis in China before the mid 1950s, his doctors would not have encouraged acupuncture. We learn from Harrington that in the early 1900s, the Chinese government began eschewing traditional medicine in favor of educating people about germ theory, in an effort to control the spread of infectious disease. At mid-century, Mao Tse-Tung was calling traditional healers “circus entertainers, snake oil salesmen, and street hawkers” (descriptions that have a contemporary, Western allopathic ring). In the mid-1950s, however, Mao did an about-face and designated traditional Chinese medicine as “a national treasure… a grand cache of knowledge that we should actively bring to light and further evolve.” It was all about politics, Harrington explains. Mao wanted to get out from under the ideological and economic dominion of the Soviet Union, which was providing China with most of its medical supplies and training the majority of its doctors.

Also in “Eastward Journeys,” an edgier-than-elsewhere Harrington takes Westerners to task for looking to the East “to function as our Other.” This “exoticizing and patronizing” mindset was reflected in sixteenth-century missionaries’ and colonialists’ accounts of “bizarre yogis” and “indolent opium eaters,” and persists in the modern romanticizing of Eastern wisdom and ancient traditions as the cure for our harried Western culture. A dramatic illustration is her depiction of the bedazzled followers of the profiteering Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the Indian TM guru of the 1960s who was first popularized in the West by the Beatles. Behind Harrington’s critique is a deeply felt hope for a fully authentic encounter with the East, one that acknowledges ancient healers and wise teachers not as exotics but as real people, “who come from countries with histories at least as complex as our own.”

Harrington’s narratives are so seamless they appear to have sprung forth fully formed, like Athena from the head of Zeus, although a mammoth bibliography indicates otherwise. Harrington demonstrates a remarkable ability to hold the long view, while keeping in mind the far-flung parts of the history of mind–body medicine. With Harrington leading the expedition, readers can see the forest and the trees. At the conclusion of the book, you will likely feel you have been treated to an academic course in the history of mind–body medicine, and indeed, you will have been. Harrington taught a large lecture course on mind–body medicine to enthusiastic students at Harvard and transformed the course materials into this book.

Notably, Harrington’s The Cure Within is the first comprehensive history of mind–body medicine. Daniel Goleman, in his 1993 consumer-oriented Mind/Body Medicine: How to Use Your Mind for Better Healing, helped popularize the term, writing that “more and more people are looking for medical care that takes into account their thoughts and emotions as well as their overt medical problems—in short, mind/body medicine.” In Where the Mind Meets the Body (1991), Harris Dienstfrey, who created the quarterly mind–body health journal Advance, investigates seven mind–body phenomena, from Type A personalities and heart disease to guided imagery. While neither of these volumes is concerned with how cultural norms shaped the history of mind–body medicine, both are informative precursors to Harrington’s book. Harrington’s other single-author books, Reenchanted Science: Holism in German Culture from Wilhelm II to Hitler (1996), and Medicine, Mind, and the Double Brain (1987), have been widely praised as masterly. I would be surprised if The Cure Within did not become a classic.

At the outset of her book, Harrington invites the reader to embark with her on “a fresh historical exploration.” Her departure from more conventional forms of historical discourse through the vehicle of narrative is refreshing. At the heart of this discourse is a personable, empathic narrator who seeks to have as authentic and connected a relationship with the reader as she wishes for our ongoing East–West dialogues.