2008 - De Benedetto - Even a little magic

Even a little magic

Maria Auxiliadora Craice De Benedetto MD
Pablo Blasco MD PhD
Thais Troll


In the past, there were such things as doctor-priests,extraordinary people who established special relationships with those who were ill. They were known as shamans. Shamans throughout ages and places have led sick people to a mysterious and magical world where the healing process is possible. And patients have usually come back changed after experiencing their healing journeys under the supervision of shamans. Nowadays medicine is dominated by specialization, technology, and scientific evidence—a world in which patients are seen in a fragmented way. Although the current model offers innumerable advantages for treatment, patients and doctors are not wholly satisfied because they feel as though something is missing¹. Off-the-cuff comments reveal their thinking. It is common for patients to say things like this: “I went to the office and only saw the doctor for a few minutes. He hurried to do tests and prescribe medicine without even listening to me properly. I wish he’d had a caring look at me.”

On the other side of the spectrum, a colleague recently complained: “I am losing my passion for medical practice. There is no room for humanism in the current model. In my vision, medicine should be approached as both a science and an art, a discipline in which the humane aspects of medicine could be as appreciated as the technological and scientific aspects.” Magic and medicine Magic has been associated with the practice of medicine for thousands of years. The idea that a portion of the healing process is attributed to magic is deeply rooted in the human psyche. Maybe it is because of this that patients are so fascinated with the advanced technology involved in some medical procedures, such as surgeries and sophisticated complementary tests—in those they can also see something magical and mysterious. But patients are shrewd and soon end up realizing that an important element is missing: the special relationship between healer and patient that always characterized the art of medicine when magic played an integral role. And now we ask, “Is there a chance that the magical dimension of medicine continues to play a role in a discipline dominated by technology and evidence?”

Symbolic efficacy

In Antropologia del Dolor, David Le Breton teaches us about the symbolic efficacy of therapeutic modalities—an efficacy that certainly depends on cultural concepts, beliefs, and a vision of life, all of which are involved in the healing process. He describes many “cure episodes” that are inexplicable and incomprehensible according to rules of modern science and asserts that the scientific approach and the shaman’s knowledge do not oppose each other but belong in different categories. He notes that human societies construct the sense and structure of the universe in which they evolve. For Le Breton, the shamans’ activities illustrate the symbolic efficacy of some therapeutic procedures, acquired in contexts where certain meanings are well established. In modern medicine, the most remarkable example of such symbolic efficacy is the placebo effect²

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