Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Belief in mind-body medicine

Proponents of alternative health practices like homebirth imagine themselves as having made a new discovery about the power of the mind to affect the body. Anne Harrington in her new book, The Cure Within, points out that these theories are far from new, and describes the characteristics of belief and believers. Or, as the article in Salon.com says, "... Harrington is less concerned with debunking dubious theories about magically thinking yourself well than she is with understanding where these beliefs come from, how they shape our experience of illness and why they persist."

Her questions are similar to questions we have raised: Where did the desire for homebirth come from? Why is it associated with magical thinking like "trusting" birth and birth affirmations? How does the belief in an idealized birth "experience" affect the attitudes and reactions of women to a birth that does not meet the ideal?
[The power of positive thinking is] still very much alive around our belief that we can use placebos to heal ourselves...

I think people hold onto this belief in the power of positive thinking because there is a kind of moral -- not only a scientific, but a moral -- persuasiveness to this idea that if you believe, and refuse to admit defeat, you'll be rewarded for that...
In other words, if you "trust" birth, and refuse to accept the fact that birth is inherently dangerous, you will be rewarded with the birth experience that you desire.

Also relevant for our discussion is Harrington's assertion that homebirth and other forms of "alternative" medicine are attractive purely because they are inherently defiant and view themselves in opposition to the mainstream.
I think part of it will always remain by design and by desire outside of the mainstream because large parts of it want to be the face of medicine that defies what the mainstream says is possible. It wants to resist and rebel and offer alternatives. I think there would be huge disappointment if it were ever really embraced by the mainstream, because it would have ceased to be that rebellious other that people perhaps need.

... There is a version of this that wants to talk about more spiritual factors and quantum factors and things that I don't even particularly understand. It pushes beyond even a naturalistic frame of reference and begins to make what I would consider paranormal claims.

... There is a version of mind-body medicine that sees healings that may or may not be possible as evidence that we're capable of far, far more than those narrow-minded medical doctors or scientists are prepared to see.
Far from representing a new way of understanding the mind-body relationship, homebirth advocates draw on a long tradition of magical thinking about health, and defiance of mainstream views of health. Although Harrington does not address the issue, prior claims about the ability of the body to prevent and treat health problems have all proven false. Homebirth is no different in this regard, either.

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