Translating 'mind-in-body': two models of patient experience underlying a randomized controlled trial of qigong

Author: Kerr C
Department of Social Medicine, Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA 02115, USA
Conference/Journal: Cult Med Psychiatry
Date published: 2002
Other: Volume ID: 26 , Issue ID: 4 , Pages: 419-47 , Word Count: 254

This study explores two conflicting models of how patients experience mind-body therapies; these models frame the design of a clinical trial examining the effects of qigong (a traditional Chinese movement therapy) on the immune systems of former cancer patients. Data consist of ethnographic research and in-depth interviews conducted at the Boston teaching hospital where the trial is to take place. These interviews, with biomedical researchers who designed the trial and with the qigong master responsible for the qigong arm of the trial, reveal two fundamentally different understandings of how qigong is experienced and how that experience may be beneficial. The biomedical team sees qigong as a non-specific therapy which combines relaxation and exercise. The qigong master, on the other hand, sees qigong as using specific movements and visualizations to direct mental attention to specific areas of the body. Thus while the biomedical team frames qigong as a 'mind-body' practice, the qigong master frames it as a 'mind-in-body' practice. This research suggests that the biomedical notion that mind-body therapies work by eliciting mental relaxation is only one way of thinking about how patients experience modalities like qigong: indeed, characterizations of mind-body therapies which emphasize a mental sense of relaxation may be specific to biomedicine and the cultures which surround it. More broadly, the paper argues that gaps in understanding between researchers and practitioners may be hindering scientific efforts to assess therapies like qigong. It concludes by proposing that clinical trials of traditional and alternative therapies build ethnographic inquiry about practitioner experience into the design process.