Friday, April 25, 2008

Mind and medicine: Did your doctor just prescribe you a quarter teaspoon of coloured sugar?

One of the most misunderstood functions of our minds is their role in organizing our bodies' efforts to overcome illness. In The Spiritual Brain: A neuroscientist's case for the existence of the soul, Montreal neuroscientist Mario Beauregard and I looked in some detail at the medical and neuroscience evidence for the placebo effect - the effect of simply believing that you have received a powerful medication (whether or not you have).

Drug studies show that many people get better just because they have received a sugar pill that they are told is a powerful new drug. (It is an authentic example of your mind acting on your brain and body.)

Recently, Time Magazine ran a short article by Laura Blue asking "Is Your Doctor Prescribing Placebos?" And guess what - many are. Almost half of physicians surveyed in a recent study admitted as much:
Among the doctors who prescribed them, one in five said they outright lied to patients by claiming a placebo was medication. But more commonly, the physicians came up with creative ways to explain, saying the substance might help but wouldn't hurt, or that "this may help you but I'm not sure how it works."

A lot of unnecessary angst is generated around the ethics of using placebos, some of it captured in Blue's article. Some say it is wrong for the doctor to deceive the patient, but the underlying problem is that neither doctor nor patient readily accepts the role the patient's mind plays in kickstarting the healing process. Sometimes, the kickstart requires the "oval indigo pill just released by MegaPharma's top doctors ... " (with the same chemical content as the sugar bowl at home).

Maybe the oval indigo pill drama wouldn't be necessary if we accepted the role our minds play in our health?