IN THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY, a German physician who studied in Vienna set up a clinic following an interest in so-called animal magnetism, which he developed into a system of treatment through hypnotism. It was called mesmerism, after his name: Franz Anton Mesmer. Dr. Mesmer claimed he could cure nervous system problems using magnetism. According to Mesmer, a proper balance of a “subtle fluid” maintained the body’s health. This subtle fluid was the same one responsible for heat, light, and gravity, and it floated throughout the universe. Dr. Mesmer created animal magnetism by focusing on the magnetic poles of the body, which he thought helped direct this fluid. Under his theory, the poles had to be aligned properly to work and to maintain a correct, smooth, and harmonious flow of fluid. If the fluid balance was off, a person could develop “nervous afflictions,” and he or she would need to be “mesmerized” to get the poles realigned and the fluid rebalanced.
It didn’t take long for Dr. Mesmer to generate publicity as well as notoriety. He received a lot of attention and got a lot of people—educated and not—curious. The medical and scientific community feared Mesmer; the government worried about secrecy and subversion of his growing group. In 1777 he was expelled from Vienna, so he went to Paris and established himself all over again.
By the 1780s he had accumulated new disciples and set up shops with them in Paris. These believers “mesmerized” people by claiming to locate their poles and control their fluid. One can picture a dramatic scene of the mad scientist waving his arms in the air, gathering his powers, and then administering the power of his touch to hapless people with “nervous afflictions,” as if futilely attempting to draw demons from them. His popularity became part mystery, part fashion. Getting treated by Mesmer and his “mesmerists” became a trendy thing to do. They would use a very elaborate apparatus, complete with mesmeric tubes, bottles of mesmerized water, and iron bars that carried the subtle fluid. These mesmeric treatments happened in secluded areas. Hence, the mystery and notoriety created.
Dr. Mesmer didn’t last very long in Paris, either. Investigations commenced. A royal government commission that included such names as Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier and Benjamin Franklin looked into his independent practice. In 1785, Mesmer left Paris for London, and then went on to Austria, Italy, Switzerland, and eventually to his native Germany, where he returned to a village near his birthplace and died in 1815. No matter where he went, he tried to win the universal acclaim he believed he deserved for his therapies.
It’s now generally accepted that Mesmer was actually treating psychosomatic illness, and he profited mightily from people’s gullibility. In retrospect, his theories and practices sound ridiculous, but in truth, the story of Mesmer parallels many stories of today. It’s not so ridiculous to imagine people falling prey to products, procedures, and health claims that are brilliantly marketed. Every day we hear of some news item related to health. We are bombarded by messages about our health—good, bad, and confusingly contradictory. And we are literally mesmerized by these messages. Even the smart, educated, cautious, and skeptical consumer is mesmerized. It’s hard to separate truth from fiction, and to know the difference between what’s healthful and harmful when the information and endorsements come from “experts.”
If you consider some of the advice doled out in the past century from these so-called experts, you’ll quickly realize that many things do not always appear as they seem. It’s quite common to witness a complete about-face when it comes to the validity of a certain fact, claim, or practice. Bloodletting was still common in the late nineteenth century. We used to think that eggs were evil and margarine was magical, but now we know that eggs are among the world’s most nutrient-dense foods and that margarine contains deadly trans fats. Doctors in the mid-twentieth century used to pose for cigarette advertisements, and later on, they began to say that baby formula was much better than breast milk for children. And while it’s hard to conceive of today, not too long ago we thought that diet had absolutely no effect on disease. We now know otherwise.
When I imagine the world fifty years from now, I wonder what kind of bogus claims that many of us accept today will have been evicted from society. I also wonder whether I’ll have had any influence, given the work I’ve been doing, to change people’s misguided perspectives on carbs, fat, and cholesterol. Indeed, there are powerful forces behind our viewpoints today. Walk into any supermarket and you’ll be met with dozens of reasons why you should eat this or that—many of those assertions perpetuating false facts and promises. This is especially true for foods labeled “healthy” whole grains, low-fat, and cholesterol-free. In addition to telling you these goods are your ticket to a longer, more vibrant life, food manufacturers somehow tie them to a lower risk of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and obesity. But you know the truth.
We live in an exciting time in medicine; we finally have the technology at our fingertips to help us diagnose, treat, and cure many illnesses that shortened life just a few decades ago. But we also live in a time when the number of people dying from chronic disease is double that of the number of people dying from infectious disease (including HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria), maternal and perinatal conditions, and nutritional deficiencies combined.1 It’s common knowledge that our country’s health care system is in need of repair. Health care costs are exorbitant. We spend nearly 20 percent of our gross domestic product on health care, and health insurance premiums for the average family continue to rise, costing more than fifteen thousand dollars a year. And although we are presently ranked first in the world in health-care spending, we are ranked thirty-seventh in overall health-system performance, according to the World Health Organization,2 and twenty-second in life expectancy among the thirty developed countries.
What will save our system and our future generations? We cannot wait for the massively complicated health-care system to fix itself, just as we cannot expect change to happen as fast as we need it. We also cannot rely on drugs to keep us alive and well. In many cases, as I’ve described in this book, drugs push us further away from where we really want to be. We must start individually with small shifts in our daily habits that amount to huge gains in our health quotient today and in the future.
Though some consider the beating heart to be the center of life (after all, it’s the heartbeat we seek in those first few weeks of life), it’s really the brain that takes center stage. Our heart wouldn’t beat without our brain, and it is our brain that allows us to experience the world on every level—to feel pleasure and pain, to love and to learn, to make decisions, and to participate in life in ways that make it worth living!
Until we face a health challenge that affects our brain’s functionality, we tend to take our mental faculties for granted. We assume that our mind will travel with us wherever we go. But what if that doesn’t happen? And what if we can in fact guarantee our mental prowess and brainpower just by actively nurturing the brain in the ways I’ve described? We all cherish the right to free speech, the right to privacy, and the right to vote, among others. These are fundamental to our way of life. But what about the right to a long life, free of cognitive decline and mental disease? You can claim this right today. I hope you do.