by Danny Ze-dog on Monday, August 8, 2011: The EKONOMIST - Aug 7, 2011 The relationship between many psychiatric researchers who are working hard to understand chronic fatigue syndrome and the patients themselves has always been a complicated one. "I would call it love", says psychiatrist Simon Wessely, stretching his legs in his King's College office.
"We love them, we follow them around, we even capture them on occasion. When they scorn us or rage at us we become very upset, as lovers will, but we always want the best for them and, of course, to be together for Eternity."
When asked if this does not in fact describe stalking behavior, Wessely laughs and says "Well yes, I suppose it does!", and he turns to point at a wall cluttered with photographs of CFS patients, most of them cut out of newspapers. He suddenly grows serious and says: "It's not stalking someone when you are meant to be together."
But it should really come as no surprise that a whole group of psychosomatic researchers has taken an extreme interest in people with CFS/ME.
"I mean, there are millions of them. What a goldmine! Er.. scientifically speaking", says Wessely.
"Millions of people, often in epidemics - astounding! - all developing almost identical somatoform disorders. It's unheard of!" enthuses Peter White, professor of psychological medicine at St Bart's. "Why, in the whole history of psychological medicine there's NEVER BEEN ANYTHING EVEN REMOTELY LIKE IT!"
"It may seem odd at first glance that millions of people of all ages from different cultures and socioeconomic backgrounds could all develop the same psychosomatic symptoms." adds White. "But to a psychosomatic researcher with a real incentive to find psychological diseases in people who don't seem to have any, it all makes sense."
Michael Sharpe, an Edinburgh University psychiatrist, tries to put the matter in perspective. "What we are looking at is a major discovery," he says. "As big as Darwin, really. We have found a mental illness that strikes thousands of times more people than any other somatoform disease, can be contagious, and in fact can spread in whole epidemics, usually after an infection or something."
This makes the syndrome so unlikely to be a psychological disease at all that Sharpe and colleagues were very hard put to define it as one.
They solved the problem by ...
They solved the problem by creating a whole new category of mental illness.
"We call it 'Wandering Brain'" says Sharpe proudly.
"Wandering Brain is a great mimic," explains Trudie Chalder, a psychologist who has played an expert in medical training videos.
"It can perfectly mimic a murine leukemia viral infection, for example. It can mimic anything, because it draws upon the awesome power of Mind."
When asked that if Wandering Brain can convince millions of healthy people to remain sick for the rest of their lives, could it not also convince a dimwit that he was in fact a knowledgeable psychiatric researcher, Sharpe becomes animated.
"Of course! The Mind can do Anything!" he says loudly, emphasizing his words by pounding on his bureau and staring rigidly at this reporter for a full minute in total silence.
"Where does the Mind end and the Body begin?" asks Wessely philosophically. "I like to think of myself as a giant brain with glasses and a little fringe of hair."
Pressed for comment about recent research by the United States Department of Defense that demonstrates neurological abnormalities in people with Gulf War Illness - which Wessely had previously called psychosomatic - Wessely leans forward and says "How was your relationship with your father?"
When he hears from this reporter that this reporter and this reporter's father didn't get on so well for a patch, especially on account of the old man's drinking, but now things are better, he says "Good, good. We've made excellent progress today. See you same time next week."