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Embracing the placebo (self-healing) effect 02/15/2011

Posted by ALT in Philosophy/Spirituality, Treatments.
Tags: , , ,

There’s an interesting placebo effect discussion going on in the blogosphere (beginning here and continuing here), and I’d like to pose my answer to a question that has come up…


Why is the placebo effect the enemy?

As Gianna points out so nicely, “the placebo effect” is a slightly misleading term for a powerful phenomenon: the inherent human ability to heal ourselves.  Our bodies are incredibly adaptable, always optimizing… the body is truly the temple for the spirit; each one uniquely reflecting the needs of the spirit housed therein.

Continuous stress on an area will cause bone structure to change and adapt, and can even cause new bones to grow from previously existing cartilage; cattleherders who spent long hours each day riding horseback (gauchos, cavalleros, or cowboys, whatever you like to call them…) actually developed bone plates in their inner thighs because of the constant pressure of the saddle.  Each human skeleton is unique; the stresses and tensions of your specific lifestyle impact the way your joints and body are physically constructed.

An 1867 sketch comparing the structure of a bone to that of a crane; the load-bearing properties are almost identical.

That is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to adaptation.

What an amazing and miraculous idea that our bodies are infinitely more capable of optimizing than any doctor or trained professional, manipulating chemistry or physiognomy, could be.  But that’s where the problem lies…

It is curious that modern medicine seems to fear this aspect of therapeutic practice [the placebo effect].  When I was working at a university, I took part in numerous clinical studies aimed at evaluating the effectiveness of certain medicines or technologies.  Each time it was necessary to exclude the placebo effect, as though that were the enemy, a spoilsport of peaceful practice.

The explanation for this must stem from the value attributed to power in our culture.  The physician must prove his technical competence, and therefore roles are clearly divided: the patient submits, the doctor treats and heals. 

(Theirry Janssen, The Solution Lies Within)

This power relationship is even reflected in the name we chose for the phenomenon of self-healing; “placebo” in Latin literally means “I shall please” and refers to the patient’s desire to please the physician by proving the therapy effective.  (Suppose instead it were called the “ego curatio effect,” or the self-healing effect… different connotations, indeed.)

Janssen goes on…

Active participation by the patient in the healing process puts in question the effectiveness and utility of the doctor.  In a similar way, the pharmaceutical industry seeks to minimize the placebo effect in order to demonstrate the necessity of the medication they propose to produce.  To believe that the sufferer possesses in himself a potential for healing threatens the omnipotence of modern science…

In reducing illness, the body, and the sufferer to predictable mechanisms, science offers the doctor a very reassuring promise of control.  One can therefore suppose that the potential for self-healing represents something unknown that is too powerful to include in therapeutic strategies… the placebo effect is a real narcissistic wound for the physician.

(Theirry Janssen, The Solution Lies Within)

Janssen is a college professor of medicine, and has observed over many years of teaching that most of his students (future doctors, therapists, and health professionals) struggle with profound fears of illness and death.  Part of their desire to become health professionals is a desire to have dominion or control over these – to them – terrifying forces of nature. 

This is an area where our society could learn much from other traditions of healing.  Many traditional or indigenous cultures look at illness as a conscious force there to teach both the patient and the healer something important.  It is a reflection of an imbalance (ignorance); the healer and the patient collaborate to address and rectify that imbalance, to come to an understanding of this new lesson from the body/spirit.  From this point of view, death is not necessarily the enemy – it may be part of the lesson – and there is no reason to fear it.

The healer is more a facilitator for the patient’s self-healing and self-learning process, than a director or dictator of the process.  Therefore the so-called “placebo effect” can be embraced, even amplified:

Instead of eliminating the placebo effect, we could regard it in all conscience as a major therapeutic tool and reinforce it, even foster its appearance… The witch doctors whom I have met have recourse without hesitation to dramatizations which impress the sick.  These ‘sacred tricks’ are an integral part of their therapy.  They appear to mobilize the psychic forces of the patient and release the potential for healing which exists in everyone.  The images, symbols, metaphors, and the explanations used are not important as long as the imagination of the patient is stimulated in a positive direction and sets in motion the physiological reactions which work towards the recovery of health.

(Thierry Janssen)

Just as each human body is different, each self-healing journey will be different, reflecting the unique worldview of the individual.  The ‘sacred tricks’ of one culture do not transfer to another; this is also true at the smaller scale of the individual.

In order to heal, you must come to know yourself – mind, body, and soul – and be the orchestrator of your ego-curatio effect.




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1. Placebo effect is inherently human – that includes ALL HUMAN BEINGS « Beyond Meds - 02/15/2011

[…] 2: The discussion continues at Alt-Mentalities including this pretty tidbit that directly addresses what I call “harnessing p… Instead of eliminating the placebo effect, we could regard it in all conscience as a major […]

2. Juliano - 03/01/2011

VERy interesting article.
However I don’t agree with this:
“Just as each human body is different, each self-healing journey will be different, reflecting the unique worldview of the individual. The ‘sacred tricks’ of one culture do not transfer to another; this is also true on at the smaller scale of the individual.”
I have heard of very dramatic healing happening with people from another culture, If you are familiar with westerners seeking healing in South America with the indigenous healers, so I dont agree with the latter part of that assertion

3. altmentalities - 03/01/2011

You’re right, Juliano – something I definitely overlooked is the phenomenon of Westerners seeking (and sometimes finding) healing from shamans and other traditional healers. Who can say what the mechanism is in these healing encounters? I guess my point was that the sacred tricks of one culture don’t necessarily transfer to another; it takes a mutual understanding of some kind, I think.

This brings to my mind a scene from the movie “Man on the Moon” about the life of Andy Kaufman. He has leukemia or some other kind of terminal illness and goes to the Phillipines to see a shamanic healer, hoping that this will be the answer for him. This healer is famous for “pulling the sickness out” of his patients. While waiting in line for his turn Andy sees the “sacred trick” of the healer: it’s chicken bones and a bit of food coloring mixed with corn syrup that he is dramatically “pulling out” of his patients. Andy had really believed that this was the answer for him; that he was going to be cured. It is a moment of supreme disillusionment for him and he laughs and laughs. The next scene is literally him in a coffin.

4. Dr. Quickfix Will See You Now « Thought Broadcast - 03/06/2011

[…] substance to exert a much more potent effect than what would be anticipated, or as a person’s innate ability to heal oneself.  Perhaps what we’re seeing at work here is a different type of placebo effect—namely, the […]

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