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Minds, Bodies & Stories

Anne Harrington

     ... historian of science. Specializing in the history of psychiatry, neuroscience and other mind sciences, with a PhD from Oxford, Dr. Harrington is Professor of the History of Science at Harvard, and Visiting Professor at the London School of Economics. She co-directed Harvard’s “Mind, Brain, and Behavior Initiative,” was a consultant for the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Mind-Body Interactions, and serves on the Board of the Mind & Life Institute.  Her books include The Cure Within: A History of Mind-Body Medicine, Medicine, Mind and the Double Brain, and Reenchanted Science. She co-edits “Biosocieties” and her edited collections include The Dalai Lama at MIT.


Stories are more powerful than most of us can begin to imagine. And we may be on the verge of the long-awaited story with which we can stitch our tattered communities back together in entirely new ways -- it's a mind-body story identified by Anne Harrington, a noted historian of science at Harvard.

Stories knit our bodies to our cultures in ways that have not yet been well explored. Not only do our stories tell us how to behave in the world, Dr. Harrington says, they also tell us how to feel in the world.

We all have a narrative, she says, an implicit narrative framework that drives the kinds of decisions that we make, the kinds of moves that scientists make and patients make when they choose to go to one kind of clinician versus another.

It's as true in mind-body science as in everyday life. In both, you usually can't understand why people do what they do simply be asking them because, Dr. Harrington says -- we all breathe these stories, they're part of the atmosphere, like the weather. And we don't usually know how to articulate them.  But, she says, when you can step back and see how these stories moved through time and how they then settled around us like an atmosphere we inhaled, it all becomes easier to understand.

In studying the history of mind-body science, Dr. Harrington has built on work of people who study stories, scholars who isolate rules that govern good and bad stories. She's gone back to the early 19th century to understand the stories that have shaped science -- especially medical science -- each of which draws on certain templates, narrative rules which themselves come from somewhere and also have a history.

Dr. Harrington has grouped the narratives she's discovered into six stories. The first three reflect the 19th century preoccupation with the unconscious, she reports -- The Power of Suggestion, The Body that Speaks, and The Power of Positive Thinking. The second three, she notes, are products of post-World War Two era: Broken by Modern Life, Healing Ties and Eastward Journeys.

These and all stories are shaped by the questions we ask and our questions come out of our own preoccupations. We could have been asking different questions, she reminds us. In the 20th century, we began with "What is mind?" and "What are we fundamentally?" she says. After World War Two, we were focused on "What's wrong with us?" Now, she says, we've moved toward a third question -- "How can we make ourselves well again?" 

Mind-body science today blends Western sciences fascination with meditation with His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s deep interest with science which he searches for a universal basis for ethics and compassion.

What about tomorrow? Dr. Harrington sees the emergence of a sort of destabilizing conversation about community taking place -- it's not just the number of friends you have that improves your health and lengthens your life. It's also your place in the social hierarchy that determines your well-being. Dr. Harrington's not sure this glimmer of a new story is yet integrated enough to have full standing as a mind-body story, but she does believe, it has a political energy.  Stay tuned.

[This Program was recorded March 28, 2006, in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.]

Conversation 1

Our stories tell us how to feel in the world as well as how to behave, Dr. Anne Harrington tells Paula Gordon and Bill Russell. Stories knit bodies to cultures, she says and expands.

Conversation 1 RealAudio6:38

Conversation 2

Dr. Harrington remembers the origins of her own interest in stories, then fleshes out several mind-body stories she's identified: The Power of Suggestion, The Power of Positive Thinking, The Body that Speaks, Broken by Modern Life, Healing Ties and Eastward Journeys -- distinguishing the first three from the second. She introduces the post-World War Two idea of “stress.”

Conversation 1 RealAudio10:35

Conversation 3

Putting ideas in context is powerful because it helps us understand what’s at stake in scientific ideas,Dr. Harrington says, belying the comfortable idea that science has no emotional valences. She uses the example of the “modern” reaching out to Eastern traditions. Still looking at mind-body stories, she explores implicit narrative frameworks that drive scientists' and patients' decisions and actions. She outlines how valuable it is to step back and see how our stories moved through time then settle around us like weather. Nature doesn’t tell us what’s interesting about it, she reminds listeners, explaining how significant our stories are in framing our questions.  She considers the placebo affect.

Conversation 1 RealAudio11:19 ...

Conversation 4

Dr. Harrington examines Western medicine’s story, a simple but powerful and seductive one, she says: "When you get sick, something’s broken down in your body, you call a doctor and that person fixes you." Dr. Harrington considers how uncomfortable present-day narratives are with death, an important question that has not been well digested, she observes.  Building on an actual life-and-death story, Dr. Harrington turns to the “Talking Sets You Free” narrative. She suggests a surprising result she sees growing from today’s considerable interest in using religion as part of medicine. Mind-body medicine, she reminds us, has its limits, too.

Conversation 1 RealAudio13:50

 Conversation 5

Dr. Harrington demonstrates how our questions shape our stories over time, from “What are we, fundamentally?” to “What’s wrong with us?” to “How can we make ourselves well again?”  She puts meditation in its historical, cultural and mind-body contexts, urging us to remember that our stories come out of our own preoccupations -- we can always ask different questions, she counsels. She tells several stories about His Holiness the Dalai Lama, with whom she has met often, showing how his interests in science and ethics overlap.

Conversation 1 RealAudio9:11

Conversation 6

Currently, our group of stories are pulling us in different directions, she reports, then considers stories that might have the political energy to help us move beyond self to community.

Conversation 1 RealAudio4:36


Both of Dr. Harrington's books, Stories under the Skin: the Making of Mind-Body Medicine in America (published as The Cure Within: A History of Mind-Body Medicine) and The Dalai Lama at MIT were "in process" when we recorded this conversation. She went considerably out of her way to make sure that we has access to the materials we needed, then arranged her complex schedule to include us while meeting a number of other obligations.  We thank Dr. Harrington for her courtesies, for her mind-expanding ideas and for her personal touch.

We also applaud the Emory College Program in Science & Society and the Emory Tibet Partnership for hosting Dr. Harrington in Atlanta.

Related Links:

The Cure Within: A History of Mind-Body Medicine is published by W.W. Norton.

Mind, Medicine, and the Double Brain was published by Princeton University Press, The Dalai Lama at MIT which she co-edited, is published by Harvard University Press.

More details about Dr. Harrington at her Harvard website.

Find more about Dr. Harrington’s appointment at Emory University as their 2006 Nat C. Robertson Distinguished Professorship, and her participation in Emory’s Science and Society program at their website.

Alan Wallace founded the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies to forward the development of a science of consciousness as proposed in the 19th century by philosopher and psychologist William James.

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