How can we reconcile the Course’s philosophy of sickness with the effectiveness of medicine?

Q. I can almost accept the Course’s teaching that the mind’s attacks make physical sickness. However, I still have some trouble reconciling that perspective with some of the scientific, double-blind studies using placebos. I’ve read a number of studies where patients didn’t know if they were getting the real medicine or a placebo. Yet for the group that did get the medicine, nearly 100% of them got better, whereas not a single person from the placebo group did. This seems to suggest that there is some correlation between what the body is chemically exposed to and its ability to heal. How might the Course explain them? How might a person taking the Course view such studies? 

A. That’s a great question. Clearly, medicine has an effect. We can’t get around that. Think about giving medicine to a dog, for instance. There’s no placebo effect there—the dog doesn’t know what’s going on. Yet the medicine still works.

What can help us harmonize this with the Course is to realize that, in the Course’s system, the mind is dreaming up the body, moment by moment. The mind is pulling all the strings, manipulating all the chemical reactions. The fact is, though, that it usually pulls those strings according to certain rules or laws that it has set up. For instance, one of those rules is this: If a tablet of aspirin is swallowed, a headache will go away. The existence of these rules make it seem as if the mind is not part of the process. It makes the whole thing seem to be completely physical. But it’s not completely physical, because the mind is doing it all. This would include a dog’s mind as well as a human mind, for both are ultimately vast and not confined to their tiny manifestations in this world.

If you have ever watched Seinfeld, there was an episode where Kramer was running an “automated” movie call-in service, where people could call in and punch in the name of a movie, and find out where it was playing. The only thing was, it wasn’t automated. He was just on the phone—live—saying things like “please speak the name of the movie you wish to see”—in a voice that sounded automated. Then he would look up the times and locations for that movie in the paper, and read them to the person calling—again, in a voice that sounded canned.

It’s a bit of a clumsy metaphor, but that’s what is happening with bodily processes. They look fully automatic, but in fact, there is a mind manipulating them all, and doing so in such a way as to make them appear to be automatic.

I think we find the same basic point of view in a passage from the Manual that directly addresses the effectiveness of medicine:

The acceptance of sickness as a decision of the mind, for a purpose for which it would use the body, is the basis of healing. And this is so for healing in all forms. A patient decides that this is so, and he recovers. If he decides against recovery, he will not be healed. Who is the physician? Only the mind of the patient himself. The outcome is what he decides that it is. Special agents seem to be ministering to him, yet they but give form to his own choice. He chooses them in order to bring tangible form to his desires. And it is this they do, and nothing else. They are not actually needed at all. The patient could merely rise up without their aid and say, “I have no use for this.” There is no form of sickness that would not be cured at once. (M-5.II.2)

In other words, the patient’s mind is causing the sickness and is doing the healing. “Special agents [medicines] seem to be ministering to him,” but they are just his decision to be healed taking a physical form. They allow his healing to take place within the system of “laws” that his mind has invented. The patient’s mind, however, doesn’t need to work within that system. It could just heal its body without the intermediary of medicines. That, however, is usually not desired, as it threatens the system the mind has set up and identifies with. But it is possible, and of course, it does happen.

Indeed, that is why the placebo effect is often so strong. In many cases, it is as strong as the effectiveness of conventional medicine. This is a medical mystery that is not yet solved and which many people feel is a clue as to the ultimate relationship between mind and body.

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