The benefits of modern medicine, founded in the system of scientific inquiry, are undeniable. It has led to better public hygiene, reduced transmission of infectious diseases, and lower mortality rates associated with childbirth. Over the past century, this allowed populations to surge and our life expectancy to be greatly extended.
Western-style medicine also improves quality of life. Surgical procedures can correct otherwise debilitating spinal deformities. Adults can undergo laser acne scar removal to erase the confidence-sapping pockmarks and blemishes incurred earlier in life. And then there’s the sheer convenience of purchasing over-the-counter medicines to address a variety of symptoms.
But when it comes to exploring the influence of our minds over our bodies’ ability to heal, medical science is still grasping for new knowledge. Here, traditional practices may offer something different.
Mind and body in traditional medicine
Disease, injury, and death have been a fact of human life throughout our species’ evolution. By contrast, even if you account for its founding by Hippocrates in ancient Greece, medical science has only been with us for over two thousand years.
For much of our existence, therefore, humans have relied on various forms of traditional medicine. And these practices are holistic out of necessity. Lacking the information derived from science, a tribal healer or shaman would have to reference cultural, social, or even spiritual elements in treating an ill person.
This has resulted in traditional medicine having an outlook that more thoroughly considers the entire context of a person’s well-being.
Even without scientific evidence, traditional practitioners know that a positive attitude can help you recover better. Ayurveda recognizes that disruption in emotional or spiritual harmony can leave you prone to disease. Similarly, Chinese traditional medicine maps emotional meridians onto specific organs: anger with the liver, joy with the heart, and so on.
Because of this holistic approach, traditional medicine is more open to the idea that the mind plays a part in healing the body. Traditional healers are as likely to prescribe meditation, aromatherapy, or massage and rate them as highly as a Western doctor would recommend a specific drug or procedure.
Evidence of effectiveness
Alternative practices, handed down through centuries or even millennia, might hold a firm belief in the power of mind over body. But Western science demands evidence, and people today are often conditioned to do the same. Before we try out these seemingly exotic therapies, we want to know if they really work.
There’s a sizable array of scientific research in support of mind-body interventions for common clinical conditions. Mindfulness meditation, for example, has been found to relieve chronic pain. A technique known as HeartMath emotional shifting demonstrated improvements in diabetic patients’ blood glucose, cholesterol, blood pressure, and heart rate. Other therapies have been shown to improve post-surgical outcomes and alleviate symptoms related to cancer or treatments thereof.
Though not a therapy itself, the placebo effect also demonstrates how the mind can influence our bodies. This was first discovered during World War II, when then-medic Dr. Henry Beecher improvised saline solution to cover for a shortage of morphine needed by wounded soldiers. Placebo responses may be mediated by conditioning the mind, which regulates unconscious physiological functions like hormone secretion.
In Cure, Jo Marchant details studies that are even further “out there.” These include hypnotherapy as a treatment for irritable bowel syndrome and the application of VR technology in an immersive environment as a painkiller for burn victims.
A lack of acceptance
Despite this evidence, mind-body interventions still lack widespread acceptance, although awareness of their potential is growing.
For many scientists, their association with traditional medicine automatically taints them with suspicion of quackery and charlatanism, accusations that have been frequently leveled against practitioners in this realm.
Moreover, due to modern science’s Enlightenment roots and emphasis on the empirical, any cure that claims to treat intangibles such as one’s soul is excluded from consideration. By this definition, it isn’t based on the physical, and therefore holds no value in a system that traces cause-and-effect from injury or disease to organs and cells.
Perhaps due to the rigorous nature of medical science, the complex effects of mind-body therapies are harder to understand. It’s difficult to account for all the factors that influence our minds, and from there, it might be impossible to determine reliable causality.
But if we understand Western medicine to be highly specialized and accurate within its understanding of the body, we can see that conflict isn’t necessary. Mind-body interventions are founded on the whole, not the parts, and work well to supplement scientific treatments. You can definitely benefit from such healing therapies aimed at the right illnesses or conditions under the guidance of an appropriately trained practitioner.