Marchant (The Shadow King: The Bizarre Afterlife of King Tut's Mummy, 2013 etc.) explores how traditional and alternative medicine overlap.
As a science journalist and former editor at New Scientist, the author is uncompromising in her commitment to the scientific method and the necessity of rigorous trials to determine the efficacy of medical treatment. In answer to the question of whether “by harnessing the power of the mind, alternative treatments can offer something that conventional medicine has missed,” she finds the role of the mind to be central to both. A significant element related to this question is the placebo effect. When new therapies are being tested, subjects are divided into two groups, only one of which is given the treatment. “To avoid individual biases when testing new therapies, neither doctors nor patients know what treatment is being given,” writes the author. “The results are analyzed using rigorous statistical techniques” in order to eliminate the element of suggestibility from the results. Marchant turns this idea on its head. Her aim is to explore curative effects of placebos themselves as a clue to the relationship between the brain and the body's immune system. Despite the fact that placebo effects are subjective, they are “underpinned by measurable, physical changes in the brain and body.” This relationship is especially relevant to the treatment of autoimmune diseases, problems that may arise with organ transplants, and the nature of controversial diseases such as chronic fatigue syndrome. It also offers clues to understanding why nontraditional medical treatments may prove effective. Marchant explores a number of nontraditional therapies such as the use of hypnosis, visualization, and mindfulness meditation to deal with chronic pain and stress-related diseases. However, she is not optimistic that a revolution of medicine is in the offing—drug companies are too influential in shaping research—despite the promise of these approaches in dealing with medical and psychological issues.
A balanced, informative review of a controversial subject.