Delusions About Self-Healing

By Chris Mooney | January 25, 2011 1:11 pm

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.


Comments (5)

  1. I have to say I don’t really agree with Sloan. While it may be true that positive thinking cannot actually cure any disease by itself or may not even mitigate the symptoms to any measurable extent, by denying any connection between mental states and disease or the lack thereof, you are denying the basic connection between mind and body which definitely seems to be untrue.

    I think there are at least indirect ways in which personality and positive thinking can aid the treatment of disease. For instance, cancer treatment is often hampered by patients giving up and discontinuing their medication because of side effects like extreme nausea. I think it’s obvious in such cases that people who generally have a “fighting” personality might tolerate the treatments for longer, leading to a greater probability of recovery. This would naturally be true of other diseases too. There are other examples; you yourself mentioned the effect of stress on physical well being and stress definitely is a function of mind.

    Perhaps there was a reason why Peter Medawar, when asked by Stephen Jay Gould about what the best determinant of cancer survival was, said, “A sanguine personality”. At the very least I think we need to see many more studies before drawing Sloan’s conclusion.

  2. Nullius in Verba

    You know, I think sometimes that medical researchers are so used to treating the placebo effect as the zero on their scale of effectiveness, that they never stop to think about what it actually implies.

    Try explaining in a couple of sentences what the placebo effect is, and how it works, and then re-read the above.

  3. Sean McCorkle

    Nullius: agreed, and well put. And an extremely interesting question: Is the placebo effect real, and if so, what is it?

  4. Brian Too

    Little anecdote.

    Many, many years ago I was swimming and boating on a wonderful lake. Having a great time. Eventually I slipped on a rock and cut myself on the foot. Very inconvenient, although a minor injury. We were a long way from our home dock at that point.

    I decided to try the power of positive thinking, on the spot. After a few minutes the bleeding stopped and I told my cousin about my little experiment (I hadn’t told him about the accident). I was quite proud of myself, until he observed that it would have stopped anyway. That’s what minor cuts do, they clot and stop bleeding. Took the wind right out of my proverbial sails!

  5. Sidd

    Brian, that anecdote reminds me of the second stanza in this poem here.

    just a funny and interesting premise. haha


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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.


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