Book Review: The Magic Feather Effect
The Science of Alternative Medicine and the Surprising Power of Belief
“There are things that we know we don’t know,” Donald Rumsfeld once famously said, “but there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.” When it comes to alternative medicine, that last category was irresistible to the longtime journalist Melanie Warner. She’s a former staff reporter for the New York Times and the author of Pandora’s Lunchbox. In her new book, Warner found that while there is clearly some “pseudoscientific mumbo jumbo” within the alt-medicine category, there is another, intriguing zone, when treatments help, especially with issues of chronic pain—but Western science doesn’t yet know why.
It’s a timely book, as Warner notes that one in five American adults suffer from significant or severe daily pain, from problems such as irritable bowel syndrome, fibromyalgia, and osteoarthritis. Yet persistent pain is, she discovers, also often affected by someone’s mental and emotional state. How these factors interact with our brains and how we perceive pain is a fascinating subject, and one she covers well. In The Magic Feather Effect, she looks into acupuncture, energy healing, chiropractic, research on the placebo effect, psychosomatic medicine in Germany, and miracles at Lourdes. Throughout, she’s even-handed and presents absorbing case studies of people whose lives have been positively changed by alternative medicine, as well as areas where Western medicine could stand to adopt a few of the mindsets and techniques found in some forms of alternative medicine. While she finds limits to what alternative medicine can do for the human body and spirit, there’s a tremendous amount that it can accomplish, even if the reasons why will surprise you. —KDW