Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Health can sometimes be fun, free, and painless: The placebo effect gets its own Web site

One of the non-material phenomena that Mario Beauregard and I wrote about in some detail in The Spiritual Brain is the placebo effect: You take a pill that you are told will help you feel better, and you do. That's pretty convincing evidence for the pill's curative powers - except for one thing. Studies* show that you might have experienced the same effect if the pill were only compressed sugar. Most people have experienced this action of the immaterial mind on the body.

A light-hearted Web site - sponsored by Australians Marg, Brian, Ludmila, and Michael - explores the effect in more detail, and addresses some common misconceptions - for example, that the placebo effect only works if you don't "know"that the pill is a placebo:
One of the rare studies into the action of the placebo effect in 'non-blind' clinical trials was undertaken by Lee C. Park and Uno Covi at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in 1964. 'Non-blind' means that patients were informed that the pills they were issued were totally inert, that they were placebos, and in this case they were also assured that despite this the pills would be of benefit to them. The study concluded:

'The primary finding is that patients can be willing to take placebo and can improve despite disclosure of the inert content of the pills; belief in pill as drug was not a requirement for improvement.' (Ref. L. C. Park, U. Covi, Nonblind Placebo Trial - An Exploration of Neurotic Patients' Responses to Placebo When Its Inert Content Is Disclosed, Archives of General Psychiatry, April 1965, Vol. 12, pp. 336-345)
Research from the page also reminds us that nearly half of all physicians admit to prescribing placebos. As our Aussie "placebists" explain,
Whichever way we cut the arguments and the theories, the placebo effect is real and it is real because it engages those parts of human beings which defy reduction to the mechanical. It is real because it therapeutically engages human capacities and capabilities for which conventional medicine has only approximations and crude theorization, if not actual distrust. It may work in what to many are the scientific borderlands, but the important thing for us is that it works.

"The placebo effect can occur," as the physician Herbert Spiegel once put it, "when conditions are optimal for hope, faith, trust and love."

In my experience, most "skepticism" about the placebo effect - possibly the best attested effect in medicine - is linked to mechanistic materialism. If the mind doesn't exist, the placebo effect shouldn't work. But the one does ... so the other does.

On the main page, the enterprising placebists offer "Universal Placebo" pilules for sale. They are not, please note, claiming that it is a pharmaceutical. They emphasize that it is just plain sugar - add belief and swallow.

*Note: For more examples of such studies, see Placebo Effect: Your "mind's role in your health."