Thinking about The Placebo Effect

I don’t know much about this, really, but in reading about the brain, science, and belief, it seems clear that somehow human beings are made to be people of faith.   I don’t necessarily mean people of religious faith (although I think were made for that, too…the imago dei, and all that).  I mean that we are made so that what we believe about the smallest of things–the stories we tell ourselves about the world, our relationships, and even our selves in all its various components–matters to how things unfold in the material world.   Faith changes things.

It’s easy to run off the deep end here, but I’m thinking of a couple of things I’ve read recently.  Just this week, Newsweek published an article by Sharon Begley called “The Depressing News About Antidepressants” in which Begley reports that scientists are becoming increasingly convinced that the various drugs people have been taking for over a decade to combat the very real disease of depression don’t work quite like people think.   “Antidepressants work” is the mantra, but studies are showing that as much as 82% of the effectiveness of the drugs can be attributed to the so-called “placebo effect.”   It’s not that these drugs don’t work–what’s coming into question is why.   Is it because they deliver a precise chemical change to the brain, thereby lifting the symptoms related to mood, etc., to acceptable levels?  Or do they work because their patients think they will, thereby causing the body to “do it’s own thing” driven not by the pills, but by the faith in the pills.

Begley’s article is obviously of concern to those who are taking these meds, and Irving Kirsch, one of the scientists driving the increasingly controversial conversation, urges those on these meds not to stop.   Again, antidepressants work.    But again, why?

Then there’s the case of Mr. A, reported in Robert Burton’s interesting book, On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Not.   Mr. A was a seventy-six-year old World War II vet who had a five year history of “disabling knee pain.”  To make a long story short, Mr. A was part of a Houston study of 180 people who underwent surgery for osteoarthritis of the knee in which some of the patients received real corrective surgery, and others received “sham” surgery.   “General anesthesia was given”, Burton writes, and “superficial incisions were made in the skin over the knee, but no actual surgical repair was made.”  Mr. A received the “sham” surgery, but somehow, it healed his knee.   He threw away his cane, and became relatively pain free for at least two years following.

There are many stories like this.   What do you make of it?

What I am most interested in is the work of the human mind and brain, the power of story, and the faith design that seems to be a deep part of the imago Dei in each of us.   What does this say about the care with which we must use and build our imaginations?    The placebo effect is, in some fashion, a result of story-telling, and the belief we bring to those stories.

I am not suggesting anything in particular here, as much as simply sharing my ongoing fascination with this human journey, wondering what it means in terms of how best to live, work, and love each day.

Feeling better already…

One Comment

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  1. My doctor once prescribed Valium for me, but he also prescribed counseling, saying that the Valium would calm me down enough to listen, but the healing would be in the listening and learning. I am very thankful for that doctor’s integrity and that I was at a place where I could take his advice. I had believed my “stinkin’ thinkin'” for a long time; it was not easy to let it go.

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