The human mind is strange in many wonderful ways. One of the strangest properties of our mind is the ability to heal the body. We can change the reality by telling a story or visualizing a metaphor. In this article, I try to question the science and the apparent magic of healing. You can further widen your understanding of the subject by reading here, here, here, here, here, here and here.
Most people do not want to see a psychologist
We kind of know that psychology works, yet most people are reluctant to visit a psychologist. When people use chemical substances, it is reasonably clear how the substances work and what should be expected. A psychologist cannot promise this level of clarity. The rapport with a psychologist is very personal. You may see a great psychologist with no positive effects, and then meet someone less credited and experience wonderful transformations. The communication with a psychologist is somewhat like talking to a friend, so quite often we may want to talk to our friends instead. Moreover, the subjects that need to be discussed are disturbing on many levels. It is very hard to trust someone. The costs of professional therapy can be very high, and this is challenging. The time required for organized sessions is also a challenge.
We do not understand how the therapy works
This is quite embarrassing. We do not really understand why various therapies work. Not only the regular patients but also specialists are not really sure why various methods work. Most of the psychological treatments I know start from experiments no one can explain or theories that cannot be experimentally proven. Once we believe these postulates, everything else is quite easy and elegant. Yet, as scientists, we prefer to build our theories on stronger foundations.
The healing powers of the limbic brain
When we consider the healing powers of the brain, we get very close to mythology. Yet there is some science behind it. There were several experiments where the researchers tried to raise various mammals in incubators without the parental love, and the babies died. We know that compassionate human touch can reduce the pain of another person. We also know that we feel less pain when we cry or say profanities or visualize certain things. When we feel in control of a sensation, the sensation weakens significantly.
All of these adaptations make sense, because mammals raise their young, live in close social groups, and need to focus on threats and opportunities outside of their control. Yet we do not understand how they work.
The Placebo effect
Sometimes believing in something is almost as good as the real deal. People who participate in medical studies have better chances of healing than people that don’t. The medical treatments rare beat the Placebo. In fact, simply believing in a cure can cure many problems. We do not really know why. It is much easier to except divine intervention, or a different state of mind in the body when we experience trans. In case of the simple Placebo pill, nothing extraordinary happens. Even Placebo operations are easier to accept. That’s right. There were very effective operations when the doctors would open the patient, do nothing special, close the patient and observe miraculous healing. When taking the Placebo pill there are no alternative mental states, no surgical intervention, only the mind playing tricks with the body.
The impossible healing
Recently Stephen Hawking died at the age of 76. Most people with ALS do not live that long. In fact, I do not know another case just like that. I do know even stranger stories. A lady fell from a plane 33000 feet above the ground and survived. You can read some other strange stories in respectable journals. These impossible healings are very rare, but they happen all the time. And doctors cannot explain them.
Finding the hope
Some of the people that experienced miraculous healing simply believed everything will work well for them. This hope could be a personal trait, some sort of extreme optimism. Alternatively, it can be introduced by communication with other people: friends, therapists. We can also build this hope visualizing certain metaphors or telling certain stories. The studies comparing various forms of treatment often contradict each other or show inconclusive results. Each therapist will probably believe in the power of his own method. This does not mean the therapy is significantly stronger than the combination of self-help and social support.
My favorite self help methods
There are many different healing self-help methods. All of them work some of the time for some of the people. Probably believing in the methodology and using it enthusiastically is more important than the actual method. By far my favorite method is the visualization of the healing metaphor. This slightly hypnotic method provides the subconscious mind with all the clues required to handle the illness. Usually, I supplement it with a very scientific placebo: vitamins and food supplement that should in theory help. I know that the healing effect of vitamins is not entirely proven, and I try not to take too many of them as overdosage can be poisonous. The third venue I usually take is telling my story to my doctors and to my loved ones, in a way that will empower me. If I tell my story to Anna, she often gets cranky, and I ask her to hug me instead. Very similar methods allow treating various negative factors in my life: lower back aches, flu episodes, bad news and seasonal depressions.
If I am troubled by something resilient to self-help I try radical acceptance. By simply accepting some facts of life without judging the consequences, we focus on things that we can change. Then the bad things potentially disappear, simply due to lack of attention. This sort of extreme positive thinking is not very natural for me, and it can have negative outcomes if a serious problem gets neglected.
Why does it work?
Various rituals associated with magical thinking have a proven medical record. Positive thinking, prayer and spiritual diet occasionally work when the modern medicine and psychology have nothing to offer. Hypnosis and self-help methods make the magical thinking extremely rich, focused and powerful. And it works, baffling our common reason…