THE HEALING BRAIN Breakthrough Medical Discoveries About How the Brain Manages Health By Robert Ornstein and David Sobel Simon and Schuster. 301 pp. $19.95
THE HUMAN BRAIN is the great terra incognita of our age. It is to the late 20th century what China was to the 13th century, and America to the 16th century. Reports from intrepid travelers to the lands within our skulls are beginning to accumulate, and The Healing Brain is one of the more interesting of these.
The authors, a neurobiologist and a physician, promote the thesis that "health maintenance is the primary function of the brain, not rational thought, language, poetry and other functions usually thought of as
. . . language, perception and intelligence represent only a small fraction of the brain's functions." The brain's health maintenance functions evolved over many millennia, from the time "when Georgia almost Touched Ghana" to the present era of high technology medicine and modern hospitals which the authors characterize as healing shrines of "Our Lady of the Single Germ and High-Tech Medical Science."
The evidence for the influence of brain on body function is all here, from the placebo effect to the power of patient's expectations on the management of pain, arthritis and cardiac rehabilitation. Type A and Type B personalities, the higher incidence of illness after major life change, the effect of the death of a loved one on a person's immune system, endorphins, hypnosis (used to remove warts or enlarge female breasts) are exhibited for inspection, interspersed with occasional brief asides which maintain readers' attention, e.g. "some psychologists feel that marriage may be actually harmful to women."
A secondary thesis of The Healing Brain is that when our social links to other people "are strained or ruptured the health consequences are profound . . . the strength of one's social relationships increase the strength of one's resistance to disease." Evidence for this thesis, albeit interesting, is less persuasive because it is less scientifically based. For example, individuals in Alameda County, California, who had fewer social ties had a higher death rate. What is not controlled for in such an experiment is the possibility that the more socially isolated individuals are genetically inclined to be that way and that their genetics also incline them toward other behavior (e.g. depression or smoking) which increase mortality.
ULTIMATELY, however, The Healing Brain only partially satisfies despite being both interesting and readable. The authors too frequently mix accounts of well-controlled scientific studies with anecdotes and self-reports. Readers with a strong interest in the brain who have kept up with journals such as the excellent (but now sadly extinct) Science 86 etc. series will find little they have not already read about. And, despite the authors' stated intention to do more than just present "a series of interesting findings which link psychological states and health," the book emerges as a psychological kaleidoscope, a cerebral Believe-It-Or-Not. Perhaps asking the authors to synthesize the disparate facts about this new land into a more coherent whole is unfair at this point since our knowledge is still confined to merely the broad outlines of mountain ranges and river valleys.
A more serious criticism of The Healing Brain is that the authors fail to deal with a subtle but powerful implication of their thesis -- since the brain heals, and since you can control your brain, then you are ultimately responsible for your own health. And for your own disease as well, which becomes transformed into moral defect, self-blame, and spiritual failing. The person who cannot make warts go away or enlarge her breasts under hypnosis, the person who cannot control hypertension by getting in touch with feelings, the person who cannot cause a cancer to regress by learning to express anger -- such people may feel that they have failed insofar as they believe that their brain is in charge of healing themselves. That the brain heals there is no doubt, but how important it is in the overall scheme of things is very much an open question. The authors, like most advocates of holistic medicine, promote the idea that self-healing is very important. Ironically the concept of disease to which this position logically leads is identical to that which existed before modern medicine existed at all -- disease as another manifestation of original sin.
E. Fuller Torrey is a Washington psychiatrist and writer whose most recent books are "Surviving Schizophrenia" and "Witchdoctors and Psychiatrists."