Thursday, September 4, 2008

It's all in the mind!

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Every once in a while, strange things happen. Things that try to dislodge a particularly firmly entrenched idea in your firmly entrenched belief system. First it was the the previously abhorrent concept of theism; while i have personally oscillated between the two ideologies many times (and been in limbo even longer), it somehow wasn't so obvious to people who know me. What was obvious to them was the fact that i was a staunch atheist (maybe it's the liberal amounts of atheist pheromones i disperse freely). Of course i can never ever be a blind (or otherwise challenged) follower of any received wisdom or holy text, but the concept of a creator is looking more and more an inevitability. (On the other hand, frontal lobe damage is still the best candidate for all those holy visions we keep hearing about.)

The Editor who resides in the head (he's quite meddlesome) recently decided that another of those antiquated beliefs needed an update. I have always been skeptical about the whole concept of mind-body medicine. All that mystical hocus-pocus that surrounded the practice and its practicians (the reason for its popularity?) screamed 'QUACK' loud enough to drown out any other voice. The concept also seemed to suggest an implicit acceptance of the mind-separate-from-the-physical-realm hypothesis, and that was something else that jarred. But, of course nosy Mr Editor brings up another question - doesn't mind-body medicine actually support the much more acceptable mind-arising-from-matter point of view? To look at it this way, we have to expand the generally used definition of mind-body medicine ('Use of the mind to cure any ailments'), to make it sound less dubious. Look at emotions: i think they can be safely filed under the category 'Mind' (in contrast to 'Body'). Emotions can be explained neurologically as nothing more than elevated production of certain chemicals in response to specific stimuli. If this much is easy to swallow, a simple extrapolation will lead us to the conclusion that the mind can elevate the production of certain chemicals (antibodies etc) to fight disease. Put this way, it sounds OK. But what if i said something like 'Prayer makes headaches go away' or 'Music can cure cancer'? We shirk away, so quick that it might be mistaken for an epileptic (or apoplectic?) fit. And rightly so too. While mind-body medicine cannot be discarded outright as deluded quackery, it must be taken with a pinch of salt; because it's often sold on its mystical nature, rather than hard evidence based on medical trials. Ayurveda, for example, is a comprehensive science based on generations of study of ailments, symptoms and cures. Today, every other shady organization that desires easy money simply packages a product as an Ayurvedic remedy and puts it on the shelves of Ayurvedic drugstores. The reason for this is simple: no more rigorous medical trials like 'Western' medicines are subjected to, with the added bonus that that Ayurveda's mysticism means that people will actually buy such medication blindly. Ayurveda has a lot to offer to modern science - but it is in danger of being lost in the ubiquitous quackery.

Once you swallow your pride and listen to the Editor (you can't beat him- he's like The Hulk, the more you throw at him, the harder it becomes to subdue him), you begin to appreciate the world of possibilities mind-body medicine opens up. Imagine if you could get rid of any pesky sniffles by concentrating for a few minutes or heal injuries by just thinking about it. There's also the well documented phenomenon of the placebo effect - your perception of the effectiveness of medication directly affects the impact it will have on your ailment. Many doctors prescribe 'vitamins' to appease people who are convinced they are sick despite all indications to the contrary. And it actually helps. The placebo effect works the other way round too - if you are convinced the doctor you are consulting is incompetent, your belief may be borne out by the failure of the medication. Of course, mind-body medicine is not all encompassing and can never be- after all it is limited to the body's natural defence mechanisms. Modern medicine will never be superseded by mind-body medicine; perhaps it has to end the high-handed condemnation of all forms of alternative medicine though. Live and let live.

PS The title has been adapted from a quote by the venerable Roshan Priyadarshi