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The Placebo Effect

January 21, 2014

A term used for some time by scientists to try and cancel out this pesky placebo influence on their research findings for the effectiveness of new medical treatments. What they supposedly want from a pill is something that has more effect, or an effect independent of the placebo effect.  The assumption was that placebo was itself an effect of no interest to medicine that needed to be cast aside.

It turns out the placebo effect is probably the central factor to health and well-being. For it highlights two crucial aspects of regaining health that are provided by a holistic social setting. The presence of a person with the intention of helping you, (e.g the provider of the placebo pill) creating a caring and trusting environment. And your response to this environment of kickstarting your own natural healing processes. Creating the right chemicals and hormones on the cellular level that then has a snow-ball effect through your whole physiological and psychological system.

Do no underestimate the extent of this effect. It is far-reaching and profound. It is just that medical science has been busy trying to hide it for years under the title of placebo, and therefore, irrelevant illusory effect. An effect consistent over time in all circumstances is not an illusion, it is just that it did not fit in the old-fashioned reductionist causal model of medical science so it had to be censored.

Here are some of Deepak Chopras findings regarding placebos:

“…in one recent study members of a group of patients suffering from bleeding ulcers were given what their doctors described as the most potent current drug for treating ulcers. The ulcers of more than 70 percent immediately stopped bleeding. Another group, however, was told that the drug was experimental and therefore unknown in its efficacy: the ulcers of only 25 percent stopped bleeding in this group. In reality neither group took anything but a placebo.” (Creating Health, Page 83)

So what are the consequences of findings like these? At one time it was considered that the patient was somehow “fooled” into being healed!

“…Now we know that placebos induce the body’s own healing mechanisms… If we look ahead far enough, we can see that placebos may be the best medicine of all. I look upon them as a kind of permission that the mind gives itself so that healing can take place.”

He goes on to describe the mechanism in detail. The placebo causes neuro-transmitters to be released, and the body then manufactures chemicals such as endorphins, as an internal painkiller. So at the root of the causal chain here is a mental belief in the “placebo”, and the whole social setting within which that placebo is provided. It turns out that thoughts and beliefs sincerely held over time in themselves have a curative effect, and the evidence has been in front of our noses for decades in the form of the placebo effect.

The conclusion of philosophical interest is that it is evidence that the mind/body interaction works both ways. Mind, in certain cases (belief in a placebo), causes physical changes in our bodies. Physical causes, in certain cases (chemical agents), are inadequate to account for the observed phenomena. You are not just an isolated monad, a tabula rasa, passively taking on board and reflecting whatever the world throws at you. You are also an active agent that can influence the world, and change yours and others very perception of the world. You are not just a mirror to the world, you are a creator of the world.

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