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Friday, December 05, 2008

Can ideas be reduced to purely material causes?

A friend wrote, wanting to know whether ideas could or could not be reduced to material causes.

I replied,
Ideas may have material correlates, but they are not in themselves material things.

Consider the placebo effect: A woman is enrolled in a clinical study of a drug that treats rheumatoid arthritis. She is informed that the medication she is about to receive will probably greatly reduce her pain, but could result in the side effect of nausea.

And the medication does indeed greatly reduce her pain, but unfortunately, she does have the side effect. She is offered another medication to treat the side effect, and it works too. So she is very sure that medication works.

One minor further piece of information: For the medication for rheumatoid arthritis, she was in the control group. The “medication” was sterile water. As it happens, the medication for the side effect was a demonstrated anti-nausea drug.

I made the example up, but this sort of thing happens every day in clinical research, and books have been written about it. It does not happen more often to designated “neurotic” people than to others.

The placebo effect simply demonstrates the power of ideas – which, by definition, are not material things – over people. Ideas have power because the minds that apprehend them are real. And the mind plays a role in instructing the brain and the body about what feelings to pay attention to, to focus on.

That is how the woman “knew” that her arthritis was better, but that she nonetheless felt nausea.

In The Spiritual Brain, we reported on a research study in which young men were persuaded not to feel painful jaw pressure because they had received an anaesthetic, but no anaesthetic drug was used in the study!

The researchers concluded that their study provides "strong refutation of the conjecture that placebo responses reflect nothing more than report bias."

It also demonstrates the importance of the mind in medicine.

One critical role that non-materialist neuroscience can play is in helping older people manage medications effectively. The fewer medications one really needs, the fewer the problems from conflict between the effects of medications (resulting in still more medications!).

If mental states - our ideas about what is happening, basically - play a role in the effectiveness of medications, doctors and patients need to access and use that information.

It would be unfortunate if ideology or commercial concerns interfered with serious study of this area because longevity is increasing worldwide, so awareness of how mental states affect health is important.

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