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Laughing Back To Health

May 17, 2009

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Mind-body medicine has become so widely accepted today that it is difficult to recall when it was considered fantasy. For ordinary Americans, the conviction that your thoughts or emotions affect your body gained traction in the 1950s when Protestant preacher Norman Vincent Peale wrote his transformative book, The Power of Positive Thinking. But it was not until the 1970s that scientists finally began to acknowledge a connection between mind and body.

Anne Harrington, a professor of the history of science at Harvard University, identifies Norman Cousins as the man who triggered the revolution. In the 1970s, Cousins, an influential writer and editor in chief of Saturday Review, was hospitalized with a mysterious, crippling disease. Doctors diagnosed some form of progressive paralysis or a degenerative bone disease that would eventually kill him. Facing a death sentence, Cousins threw out the specialists, checked himself out of the hospital, and worked with his own physician to wage a novel war on the disease. His plan was the medical equivalent of unleashing millions of beagles in Baghdad: he flooded the place with good cheer.

"He knew that there was research and evidence showing that negative emotion — fear, anger, anxiety — was bad for you," Harrington said. "But he felt that there had been little study of whether positive emotions might have the opposite effect on your health, that it might be good for you. He felt he had nothing to lose, because he wasn't going to get better through conventional means, and perhaps he had a lot to gain.

"So he checked himself into a hotel," she continued. "He had films of Candid Camera and the Marx Brothers brought in. He read all sorts of funny books, and he discovered that ten minutes of a belly laugh gave him twenty minutes of pain-free sleep. And little by little, as it came to be famously remembered, he laughed himself back to health."

What earned Cousins a place in medical history, Harrington said, was the fact that his experience was published in the New England Journal of Medicine, one of the world's premier medical journals. Cousins received close to 3,000 letters from doctors and researchers, who praised him for medically documenting his novel approach. Firmly clutching the gauntlet thrown down by a mere layman, scientists began to explore how Cousins's recovery could be explained within the parameters of science.

Thus was born a new science: psychoneuroimmunology. The infelicitous name makes sense when you break it down: Your thoughts and feelings (psycho) affect the chemicals in your brain (neuro), which affect the hormones that fight disease or replicate viruses (immunology).

Psychoneuroimmunology. New research centers began to spring up — at Harvard, Ohio State, the University of Rochester, and the University of Miami, and one named after the man himself, the Norman Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology at UCLA.

The research flowed quickly, and showed that nonphysical things like thoughts and emotions affect our bodies at the cellular level, just as surely as do genes or lifestyle or the medicines we take. Emotions — particularly depression and stress — are linked to heart attacks. They suppress the immune system as it tries to fight the flu. One's thoughts and attitudes affect the course of cancer, and the recovery from breast cancer. Emotions even affect how long one is plagued by the skin condition psoriasis.

As I investigated these findings, I stumbled upon a researcher who has found evidence that spiritual thinking may be the most powerful mental antidote of all. I flew down to meet Dr. Gail Ironson at the University of Miami and a patient of hers whose spirituality seems to have kept AIDS at bay.

Courtesy of Riverhead Books, a division of Penguin Group (USA)

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