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Placebo

October 6, 2011

I believe the so-called “mind/body connection” is a misnomer.  Instead, we should think of a “mind/body identity” — not two separate things connected by a mysterious link, but rather two facets of the same thing.

All illness has physical and psychological components.  The physical components have to do with things like the food you eat, chemical exposure, and the actions of pathogens.  The psychological components have to do with things like your emotional state, linguistic usage, and habitual behavior.

In a sense, when illness occurs it is a cooperation between external and internal factors that upsets the body’s bioequilibrium.  Our mind is capable of leading our body into a state of disequilibrium, as well as opening the gates from the inside, so to speak, and allowing external factors to enter and cause illness.  These effects are what we know as psychosomatic illness.

Likewise, the mind is capable of leading the body in restructuring itself and reconfiguring its defenses, an effect that could be called psychosomatic wellness.

In my opinion, modern medicine makes a mistake in discarding the placebo effect as measurement error.  What we know from the placebo effect is that the body is capable of correcting itself from almost any imbalance without physical interference, almost as if by magic (i.e. with no apparent cause or mechanism).  The placebo effect has to be accounted for in every scientific study of remedies, and it almost always shows up, but rather than treating it as a phenomenon worth investigating in its own right as a source of healing power, it is categorically treated as noisy interference that makes it hard for us to tell whether or not our drugs are working.

Recently I was aware of the placebo effect operating in my own life.  Usually when I get a cold the symptoms increase for the first three days or so, peak for about a day, and then recede for another three or four days, usually taking longer to recede than to advance.  The last time I started to come down with a cold, however, I decided to do something about it.  I went to the supplement department of a natural food store and asked for help.  I described my symptoms to an employee, who listened and said, “Here, you should take this.”  I took the herbal supplement suggested, and noticed that my cold stopped advancing and began to dissipate much sooner than is typical.  I believe that this was the placebo effect at work.  I have often taken various supplements to relieve cold symptoms with little or no effect, and in this case I felt that the psychological interaction of talking, being listened to, and told by an apparently knowledgeable person “Take this, it will be good for you” was highly significant.

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