Strange but True: Mind is a powerful tool in health care


Q: Can the mind heal the body? What do today's scientists have to say on the matter?

A: "Inflammation, blood sugar and breathing rate can all influence mood and it seems mood may influence those processes right back," argues Jo Marchant in her book, "Cure: A Journey into the Science of Mind and Body," as reported to Laura Sanders in "Science News" magazine. As evidence, consider the placebo effect. In the case of Parkinson's disease sufferers, a placebo can mimic a drug's effects, flooding the brain with the chemical messenger dopamine. Intriguingly, "placebos can help even when people know they're taking a fake."

Additionally, one small study found that terminal cancer patients who talked with palliative care specialists about quality of remaining life had less depression and better experiences than patients who didn't, with the former living nearly three months longer. Other research has shown that "the mind is a powerful ally in the quest for health," including hypnotherapy for people suffering from irritable bowel syndrome, virtual reality snow worlds for burn victims and comforting talk for women undergoing breast biopsies.

As Marchant puts it, "We are humans, not machines, after all. When we're receiving medical care, our mental state matters."

Q: In pre-literate times, practiced balladeers had the ability to remember whole sagas at a sitting. Are you one of those rare birds out there today that knows by heart the entire 880,000-word output of William Shakespeare?

A: To put that into perspective, the Bible at around 750,000 words started life as an oral tradition, answers John Wood of Derbyshire, UK, in "New Scientist" magazine. "Memorizing such a large body of work requires interest, practice and time." George Fox (1624-1691), founder of the Quakers, reportedly could recite the Bible in its entirety.

"I expect some members of the Royal Shakespeare Company will know many if not all of the Bard's works by heart," Wood says. But with continued technological progress and with our smartphones and computers to access all the knowledge in the cloud, "these feats of memory will become rarer and less believable."

Q: They're nowhere near the category of bird poop or raindrops or hail pellets, but they just might be dropping onto your roof sometime soon. Got a guess what these are?

A: They're small pieces of outer space — micrometeorites that have made their way Earthward and found a new home of sorts — often in the ocean, at times on city or suburban rooftops, says Jennifer Hackett in "Scientific American" magazine. When it rains, this rooftop debris can be swept into gutters. Taken all together, NASA estimates that maybe 100 tons of space dust, gravel and rock of various sizes hit our planet every day. (Massive meteorites are mercifully quite rare.)

According to civilian astronaut and meteorite-hunter Richard Garriott, a marble-sized micrometeorite can be "picked up about every square kilometer across Earth's surface"; at the size of a grain of rice, "they're incredibly common." Garriott uses a strong magnet to locate the nickel- and iron-laden rocks, perhaps where a gutter downspout terminates. Of course, not everything the magnet attracts will come from space. But micrometeorites are distinctively spherical in shape with a telltale coating of glass created under fusion, which can readily be confirmed with a microscope.

Citizen scientists have already submitted more than 3,000 photographs of candidate space rocks to Project Stardust, hoping for a celestial find. Interested in joining the search?

Send STRANGE questions to brothers Bill and Rich at


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