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Tuesday, December 26, 2006

A third recent ChristianWeek column: Faith as one of the healing arts

Faith as one of the healing arts

by Denyse O'Leary

According to an article in Jewish World Review (October 3, 2006) hospitals in the United States have finally begun to pay attention to patients' religious beliefs. "The last thing you want to worry about while somebody is sick is that they might have to transgress on something they believe in," says Zahava Cohen, Englewood Hospital's patient care director (New Jersey). Cohen is surely right; and we can only hope that this trend spreads.

Yes, yes, illness and death come to us all. And serious illness may require abrupt actions and intimidating technology. But, especially among older people, many illnesses are chronic. There is no "pill for every ill." We adapt our lives to illnesses and illnesses to our lives, and go on from there. We instinctively resist being packaged as "the pancreas in # 209" or ultimately the "corpse" to be disposed of, with no acknowledgement that this is or once was part of a person who was in turn part of a community. After all, even in death, the silenced corporal reality is still "Nana" or "Unkie Joe." Acknowledging the community to which the sick, dying, or deceased belong, in which they will be remembered at least by a few for decades to come, is good medicine.

The way in which we receive health care makes a huge difference to its ultimate effect. This reality has long been disguised under the misnamed and misunderstood "placebo" effect. Literally, the word means "I will please." Originally, it referred to sugar pills given to a patient who believes that they are potent. Over one third of patients get better simply because they think the placebo is a powerful medicine. The placebo effect probably underlies traditional shamanism. The reason so many tribal Christians continue to surreptitiously visit shamans is not that they are deluded into believing that shamanism works but because it so often does work. Unfortunately, the shaman typically attributes the healing to specific bizarre practices rather than to the power of belief to trigger healing processes.

Indeed, since the 1970s, a proposed new medication is expected to perform about five percent better than a placebo, if it is to be licensed for use by physicians. Now, let's stop and think about what that means for a moment: We may be taking medications that are only a small percentage more effective than our own belief in them! The placebo effect is thus an interesting demonstration of the power of the mind over the brain and body. It might better be called the cognosco or "I am aware (of healing)" effect.

The placebo effect is not a cure-all; a recent study suggests that it is ineffectual against cancer. However, a 2004 study compared thirty Parkinson's patients who received controversial embryonic stem cell implants with patients who thought they were receiving them (but were actually undergoing a sham surgery). Those who thought they had received stem cells reported a better quality of life a year later than those who thought they had received the sham surgery, regardless of which surgery the patients had actually received. And the medical personnel's assessments of patients tended to concur with the patients' own views.

Doctors use the placebo effect automatically in their work. For example, they behave confidently and reassuringly even when completely stumped by the patient's symptoms or faced suddenly with a life-threatening disorder. They are right to behave this way. A doctor's anxiety would trigger the placebo effect's evil twin, the nocebo effect. "Nocebo" means "I will harm," and nocebos really do harm. Patients may be ill for longer periods and suffer worse symptoms if nocebo effects convince them that they are doomed.

Some consider the placebo effect a mystery. In March 2005, British science magazine New Scientist listed thirteen "Things That Don't Make Sense", and the placebo effect was number one on their list. Of course, the placebo effect doesn't "make sense" if you assume, as they do, that the mind either does not exist or is powerless. The traditional Christian view is that the mind is grounded in the brain so long as we live in this world. Therefore, what the patient's mind perceives expresses itself in the brain and body. Both the placebo and nocebo effects are strong support for the traditional view.

My other blog is the Post-Darwinist, detailing events of interest in the intelligent design controversy. My most recently published book is By Design or by Chance?, an overview of the intelligent design controversy.

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