Review: Cure

1 February 2016

Writing pop science is like making a bowl of cereal – the trick is ratio, you need to carefully balance the science to the pop. Too much science and you end up with something dry and hard to swallow. Too much pop, and the facts are diluted to the point of disintegration, your book becomes a mushy mess and so does the reader’s mind. It’s a difficult balancing act, but one that Jo Marchant handles with an acuity not common to members of her field.

Marchant has a PhD in genetics and medical microbiology and is an award-winning science writer too, having written for New Scientist, Nature, The Guardian, and Smithsonian. Her extensive expertise in both science and writing is obvious in her latest book.

Cure: A Journey into the Science of Mind Over Body is a rigorous exploration of the science (and pseudo-science) behind the mind’s ability to heal the body. Naturally sceptical, Marchant travels the world to personally meet patients, doctors and scientists living, working and pioneering in this emergent field. The book is filled with personal accounts, drawing readers into both the tragic and hopeful lives of Marchant’s subjects and presenting their stories with candour and respect. While maintaining her commitment to the scientific method, Marchant is open-minded about the possibilities offered by alternative medicine.

The book is divided into two parts – the first is a discussion of the placebo effect, how it works and how we can harness it. Marchant first considers how the placebo effect actually works. It’s not, like many thought, mere wishful thinking on the part of the test subject. Expecting to feel better, Marchant explains, actually creates measurable, physical results. Marchant proceeds by giving examples in which patients’ brains released chemicals after a placebo in the same way as after traditional medicine.

After explaining placebos, Marchant delves into the possibilities of ‘fake placebos’, whereby patients know they are receiving a fake cure, but recover anyway. Marchant also considers ‘mindful drug-taking’, in which patients create a ritual (often accompanied by music and a pungent tonic) to increase the efficacy of their medication.

The second part of Cure is dedicated to exploring evidence that our thoughts, emotions and beliefs can improve our health. This is an area that scientists from a range of fields have begun to explore with some trepidation; traditionally it is one hijacked by new age gurus and spiritualists. Marchant, however, is unafraid of delving into this topic and she candidly discusses the benefits of such practices. Chapters include analyses of meditation as a protection against depression and dementia, the impact of social connection on life expectancy, the role of personal care in healing patients, faith, and even the use of virtual reality in treating burn victims.

Despite obvious results in some instances, Marchant is not optimistic that a medical revolution is on the horizon due to Big Pharma’s over-reliance on the current model. Further, she notes, promising results are often ignored by the medical community entirely.

Throughout her work, Marchant is uncompromising in her commitment to the scientific method. She constantly stresses the necessity of rigorous trials to determine the efficacy of treatment, notes where study sizes are too small for meaningful results and alerts readers to specialists in the field who disagree with given findings. Many of the studies Marchant discusses are incompatible with the ‘scientific gold standard’ of double-blind testing, but Marchant nonetheless explores these options, identifies the science and gives examples of repeatedly demonstrated results.

This is jet-pack journalism and pop science at its best. Marchant presents readers with a well-researched, balanced and informative view of a controversial topic. Her writing is personal and engaging and her use of testimonials pulls the reader in, forcing them to strap in for the ride. Better yet, her writing is lucid and free of medical jargon that could otherwise leave readers confused or bored. Readers don’t need a medical degree to understand Cure as Marchant has a gift for explaining highly technical subjects in a way that her readers can understand.

Ultimately, Cure is a book that seeks to reclaim mind-body healing as a scientific field, wresting it from the clutches of new agers and pseudoscientists to explain the mind’s potential to heal the body, and also its limitations. And, as it turns out, it does a pretty good job of it.