Saturday, August 30, 2008

What is the Placebo Effect?

These days, most people are familiar with the placebo effect thanks to the plethora of medical dramas on television. Back in the dark ages when I was in college and there were only 3 television networks, limited cable programming (which consisted mainly of Gilligan's Island repeats), HBO (which was mainly for movies with nudity), and MTV (which used to show music videos), there were fewer shows and they tended to underestimate the sophistication of the audience. The word "placebo" wasn't tossed around casually at that time, but, being a psychology major, I learned of it in one of my classes.

The idea behind the placebo effect is that we "fool" ourselves into believing an effect is being had on our bodies when administered treatment which biologically has no measurable effect. Though I've known about this for quite some time, I didn't really think deeply about until recently. Let's break down the placebo effect as it generally works:
  1. An authority figure tells you your are going to receive a treatment which will solve or diminish the problem.
  2. He gives you the equivalent of a sugar pill.
  3. You take the sugar pills.
  4. You get or feel better.
The placebo effect is a very handy effect for medical science in some ways. It allows them to explain how treatments that cannot be scientifically proven in the laboratory such as acupuncture, herbal remedies, and holistic applications appear to be effective while neatly discounting their viability as treatment.

What medical science obfuscates with a complicated-sounding word (placebo) is that the truth of what the placebo effect represents. It represents the ability of your mind to regulate your body's healing or pain management without the intervention of an external treatment. What the placebo effect really is, is a form of self-healing.

Encouraging self-healing is a tricky business. For one thing, it doesn't always work and believing it might work may discourage people from seeking proper treatment. It most certainly does not work when an injury is inflicted on the body which requires resetting of bones or stitching of wounds and this rather undermines the perception that we actually can self-heal in some cases. However, just because we cannot apply mental focus to achieving the equivalent of lifting a boulder over our heads does not mean that we can't do the equivalent of lifting a few pebbles. What I mean by that is that you may not be able to mend a broken leg by the use of mental processes, but you may be able to overcome a headache or diminish the intensity and duration of a leg cramp. You may even be able to maintain better health on a regular basis by mentally applying yourself to all aspects of its overall health.

The notion of self-healing is further undermined by the idea that it's some New Age pie-in-the-sky concept that is practiced by hippies who are interested in keeping their chakras aligned and their auras healthy. This is a notion that medical science prefers to perpetuate, not because of financial self-interest as many cynical sorts like to believe, but rather because they firmly believe it does not work and are afraid that people will be conned by opportunists or fail to seek life-saving treatment for serious problems.

The placebo effect is not some New Age myth though. It is a scientific fact. Many studies have been done on it and it works in a statistically significant number of cases. The reason placebos work and directed self-healing does not is that when an authority figure tells us we will get better, we believe it. When we tell ourselves we will get better, we often lack the true conviction to bring about the desired improvements. There is a vicious circle at work in this situation. If we believed we had more control over our body, we'd be better able to self-heal or pain manage. However, we don't believe it so we can't, and if we can't self-heal or pain manage, then we don't believe we can.

The curious thing about the placebo effect to me is that there is actual evidence of a concept that is embraced by a variety of spiritual beliefs, yet people still do not believe they can regulate their own bodies or cure themselves of some problems without involving an external application. This ability is written off as a mental trick or our ability to fool ourselves when it really is, for lack of a better word, "power" to control a situation we're frequently told is not under our control. Instead of allowing this power to be written off as part of a scientifically curious result, it should be regarded as a revelation of which we should explore the potential.


As a personal aside, I will note that I have worked with controlling my pain and problems since I gave up on doctors ever helping me with my back problems. I also mitigated a lot of the discomfort of chilblains using what can best be described as a form of "active meditation" or "directed thought." It's my impression that this does help appreciably. When I went through my first bout of chilblains, it was excruciating. During the two subsequent bouts, I applied myself mentally to reducing the inflammation and discomfort from the itching and the two bouts that followed were each greatly less bad than the first one.

One of my motivations for this was the fact that I discovered during my research on back treatment that 1/3 of all people suffering from severe back problems in a controlled study got better with no treatment which is equal to the number of people who got better with surgery or non-invasive therapy (medication, exercise, topical treatment, etc.).

Another of my motivations was the fact that we communicate with every part of our body through various systems unconsciously. There's no reason to believe that we cannot communicate with them consciously or willfully as well except for the fact that we don't tend to believe it is possible.

1 comment:

Lulu said...

Have you ever heard of or tried EFT? Might be worth a look!