Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Anne Harrington interviewed

Salon has an article on The Cure Within, and with it an interview with Anne Harrington.

She appears to approach the topic with a fair amount of open-mindedness; after all, she is writing about the history of mind-body medicine, not passing judgment. So something like is welcome and reasonable:

When do we find ourselves being tempted by or drawn to the other understandings of mind-body medicine? It's often when mainstream medicine lets us down or can't provide therapies. Often around chronic disorders, it doesn't seem to do justice to all the complex ways in which our diseases are more than just diseases, [in that] they're part of who we are. And we need to make sense of them as part of who we are.

I personally feel she's way off, however, with this:

I think part of it [mind-body medicine] 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.

No doubt this is true of some proponents of mind-body medicine but I feel it's a ridiculous generalization to make. Me, I yearn for this to become mainstream. I hate having to talk to doctors who make you feel like you're from Mars if you suggest that your emotional state is actually an important part of your physical reality. I want it to be mainstream because until it is, the truth of the mind-body connection remains far too underappreciated and misunderstood.


Anne Harrington said...

Dear Jeremy,

I was interested in your thoughts on my comment to the folk at Salon that part of mind-body "will always remain by design and by desire outside of the mainstream." I wanted to see if I could sharpen the thought to you a little here. Having spent some six years as a member of a research group of first-rate scientists who wanted nothing more than to investigate, test, and mainstream the key ideas of mind-body medicine, I certainly believe in that cause and have worked for it myself. (This is where I first became involved with investigating the scientific evidence behind claims about the placebo effect). At the same time -- and now I am speaking as a cultural analyst -- I believe the evidence is good that there are competing tensions and tugs within the field of mind-body medicine, understood as the sum total of all people who claim to be speaking in its name. Of these, some people seem to see it as a stepping stone to something more radical: they are persuaded that the mainstream, by definition, is committed to an ultimately reductionistic understanding of the human mind, one that is unwilling to countenance the possibility of spiritual or other non-physical factors at play in some healings. They want to insist on preserving a space for that possibility. The comment printed by Salon was a transcript from a telephone interview, and I do see that it came across as more of a generalization than as what I actually intended: a reflection on the complexity of this world as a cultural phenomenon. In any event, I am delighted to discover your Mind-Body Blog, and will continue to follow it, now that I know of it!

Jeremy said...

Prof. Harrington -

Thanks for the thoughtful and enlightening clarification. (Not to mention patient. I might have been kinder in my original entry!) I don't doubt at all that many proponents of mind-body medicine are as you describe. One of the big problems, from my years of (layman's) study of the field, is that these very areas that appear to lie outside western science's capacity to measure (and, therefore, to understand fully) seem inevitably to attract an undue number of people who believe that this excuses all kinds of crazy and magical thinking--in other words, once western science's particular rigor doesn't apply, then no rigor of any kind needs to be bothered with. These kind of people, no doubt, can be found among the sorts you talk about as wanting mind-body medicine to remain completely alternative and rebellious.

I personally would like to believe that the mainstream will not forever be committed by definition to a reductionistic understanding of the human mind. I would like to think that as we progress, mainstream thought will grow beyond its longstanding physicalist bias--not because it is overwhelmed by magical thinking, but because it learns to accept that by definition, traditional methods associated with western science cannot and will not measure and understand via that measurement everything that the human body and mind can do. But only time will tell--and probably a lot more time than any of us here and now will have ahead of us!