WESTERN medicine is just beginning to understand the link between thought and ill health, between the human mind and the human body. The harmful effects of stress, depression, and anger on the body have been well documented.
Now, many mainstream medical experts say there may be a positive relationship between happier emotions and healing. Bill Moyers takes on "Healing and the Mind" in a difficult five-part documentary series (airing Feb. 22-24 on PBS, check local listings) that investigates the growing medical interest in and exploration of the human mind/body link.
The two questions Mr. Moyers explores are: How do thoughts and feelings influence health? How is healing related to the mind? Though Moyers takes the viewer through a spectrum of medical evidence and theory, those questions are left largely unanswered, because researchers are just beginning to ask them.
"Healing and the Mind" is no walk in the park: A lot of physical and mental suffering is graphically presented. Many of the situations presented are heart-wrenchingly sad; the discussions of death, loneliness, pain, and disease are explicit. The point of view taken by the filmmakers is limited by and anchored in contemporary medicine. Only those experiments in alternative treatment that are deemed compatible with medical orthodoxy are investigated here. Reached by phone, Moyers said that he deliberately confined his documentary to the medical realm, leaving out any investigation of religious healing.
"Healing and the Mind" is therefore a conservative inquiry. Moyers says in the introduction to his book of the same title (a companion volume to the series) that he was warned that the series might encourage dangerously ill patients to "defy the physician, discard the medicine, stop the chemotherapy, and embrace `alternative' treatment."
Moyers was further cautioned that the series might appear to support the kind of "mind-over-matter thinking that makes people feel guilty about their illness." So Moyers frequently reinforces Western medicine's domination and underscores how little is really known about the mind's effect on the body. He is scrupulously careful not to undermine the biomedical model.
Yet implicit in all the information provided is an important challenge to the medical establishment's traditionally mechanistic approach to curing: A human being is more than a "ghost in a machine." The doctors and nurses of this series take their patients' states of mind into consideration. They treat them as people, with caring concern, not as diseased organs ("the liver in room 203"). Caring for the patients' emotional needs is thought to promote healing.
Part 1, "The Mystery of Chi," looks at traditional Chinese medicine as it operates today - side-by-side with Western medicine. Dr. David Eisenberg guides Moyers through the different methods of treatment, including a highly complex system of herbal medicines, acupuncture, and an ancient martial art. Chinese medicine recognizes no mind/body split, but is based on a belief in an essential life energy, called "chi."
Part 2, "The Mind-Body Connection," deals with the cutting edge of psychoneuroimmunology. The doctors interviewed study the connection between emotions and brain function and the influence of emotions on the immune system. They are trying to understand how the brain and the immune system "talk" to each other. The focus is on the biochemical link.
Part 3, "Healing From Within," deals with the unconventional treatment of chronic pain at the stress-reduction clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, where a form of Buddhist meditation is taught to patients for whom conventional medicine can do nothing. …