Anatomy of an Illness

It has always been my goal to write at least a little bit about what I read so I remember the most important things I learned from my reading. However, I have failed 99% of the time. It’s the Easter holiday and I am in the rare situation where I have the time, energy, and motivation to write on this blog, and I will do so now.

Today, I finished reading Anatomy of an Illness as Perceived by the Patient by Norman Cousins. The book was published in 1979. It’s a short book about how the mind can help one’s body heal itself. The stories are inspirational and empowering. I am amazed again at the life force as a natural phenomenon.

What struck me the most about this book, however, is how little America has changed since 1979. Americans are still addicted to painkillers. Actually, I think it’s worse now than in 1979, with opioid addiction being such a big problem. Doctors still haven’t started providing alternative ways to pain management, and people still don’t understand that “pain is not the enemy”. As the story on leprosy and Drs. Paul & Margaret Brand so graphically demonstrates, pain is a blessing. Without pain, we cannot recognize that our body is being damaged. The best thing to do when there is pain to treat the underlying cause. Taking painkillers should be the last resort because not only do they not treat the underlying cause of the pain but they also damage the body in other ways (e.g. taking even one aspirin causes internal bleeding).

The rest of this post will be in the form of quotes from the book followed by my comments. I have discovered that this is a very easy way to write about what I read, because all I have to do is flip through the book, type up the sentences I underlined, and write my thoughts on those sentences. The downside of this method is that the post is less readable and writing in such a way does not aid me with the organization of my thoughts (which is often why I write in the first place).


If negative emotions produce negative chemical changes in the body, wouldn’t the positive emotions produce positive chemical changes? Is it possible that love, hope, faith, laughter, confidence, and the will to live have therapeutic value? (p.34-35)

Somehow, just reading this made me feel a small surge of positive emotions. It feels amazing simply to contemplate on the power of love, hope, and faith, etc. These intangible things are what make us human after all.


Studies show that up to 90 percent of patients who reach out for medical help are suffering from self-limiting disorders well within the range of the body’s own healing powers. (p.55)

That’s cool. The problem is, how do we activate our body’s own healing powers without relying on outside sources like placebo and the doctor’s authority?


The placebo is proof that there is no real separation between mind and body. Illness is always an interaction between both. (p.56)

This quote summarizes the central idea of the book.


It used to be assumed that there was some correlation between high suggestibility and low intelligence, and that people with low IQs were therefore apt to be better placebo subjects. This theory was exploded by Dr. H. Gold at the Cornell Conference on Therapy in 1946. The higher the intelligence, said Dr. Gold on the basis of his extended studies, the greater the potential benefit from the use of placebos. (p.63)

This is consistent with what I read in the Wikipedia article on hypnosis, i.e. high suggestibility is correlated with high intelligence. I find that highly intriguing. As mentioned in Thinking, Fast and Slow, another trait that correlates with high intelligence is high self-control. It’s a lot to think about. Honestly, I find human will to be even more fascinating than human intelligence.


Our experiences come at us in such profusion and from so many different directions that they are never really sorted out, much less absorbed. The result is clutter and confusion. We gorge the senses and starve the sensitivities. (p.65)

This quote is about stress produced by the modern lifestyle. I totally agree with this characterization. Indeed, we gorge the senses and starve the sensitivities. Who even talk about sensibilities anymore? I don’t remember exactly how he says it, but in the introduction of Critical Path, Buckminster Fuller talks about how poets are different from other people because they are really good at “feelings”. That has stuck with me because I constantly notice that modern life is destroying my ability to have delicate feelings. Most of the times, I just feel numbed. I am almost encouraged to feel numbed to get through the day. Sometimes, I feel like a robot, working through a long, long to-do list. That’s not the way to live, not if you want to live a human life.


In the end, the greatest value of the placebo is what it can tell us about life. … The placebo is only a tangible object made essential in an age that feels uncomfortable with intangibles, an age that prefers to think that every inner effect must have an outer cause. … If we can liberate ourselves from tangibles, we can connect hope and the will to live directly to the ability of the body to meet great threats and challenges. (p.66-67)

Ours is a materialistic age. We recognize the power of the mind but cannot incorporate that into our scientific worldview because our science is not advanced enough. It’s a shame, but I guess we’ll just have to wait till we have scientific explanations for consciousness for a true paradigm shift. Until then, we will likely stay in the materialistic age, our potentially powerful minds remain weak and trapped by materials.


“The answer to helplessness is not so very complicated.” Don Pablo said. “A man can do something for peace without having to jump into politics. Each man has inside him a basic decency and goodness. If he listens to it and acts on it, he is giving a great deal of what it is the world needs most. It is not complicated but it takes courage. It takes courage for a man to listen to his own goodness and act on it. Do we dare to be ourselves? This is the question that counts.” (p.79)

I think this is a beautiful quote by Pablo Casals. It reminds me of a philosophy lecture on “authenticity” I listened to a long time ago. If we all dare to be ourselves, the world would probably be better place. Of course, an individual is not just one thing. An individual is not all good or all bad, but I think in most of us, the good outweighs the bad. We just need more courage to act on that goodness within us…

I can relate to this. There is a voice inside me that tells me to pursue my dream despite all odds, to seek the truth and not waste anymore time seeking money. However, I consistently ignore that voice out of fear. I fear poverty and I fear being viewed as strange and unsuccessful by others. The result is that I am now going to be an accountant instead of a philosopher. I don’t have the courage to listen to the goodness inside me.


The most important thing about science is the scientific method–a way of thinking systematically, a way of assembling evidence and appraising it, a way of conducting experiments so as to predict accurately what will happen under given circumstances, a way of ascertaining and recognizing one’s own errors, a way of finding the fallacies in long-held ideas. (p.120-121)

This sentence on the scientific method reminds me of Popper and the central place of falsification in the scientific method. I think the scientific method is an extremely important and efficient way to discover truths about the physical world. However, in order to discover truths about the whole world (not just the physical), we need to supplement the scientific method with other truth-seeking methods. Maybe we could make a little room for rationalism in our quest for the truth. The world needs not only scientists, but also philosophers, theologians, and pure mathematicians…


Most doctors recognize that medicine is just as much an art as it is a science and that the most important knowledge in medicine to be learned or taught is the way the human mind and body can summon innermost resources to meet extraordinary challenges. (p.159)

I have always wondered: What exactly is the distinction between art and science the way people use these terms? The author seems to be suggesting here that art involves more human mind (and perhaps, “sensitivities”?) than does science.

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About sy2m

a student forever ... never stop seeking knowledge :)
This entry was posted in Non-fiction, Psychology, Thoughts and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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