The Healing Mystery of Placebo

“Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.”  Aldous Huxley

Pavlov’s “scientific” discovery of the conditioned reflex had a profound impact on psychological theory.  Motivated by their obsessional hyper attentiveness to food, dogs salivated in anticipation of food when Pavlov paired the ringing of a bell with a food treat.  Today, dog owners still use some version of this principle to train their dogs.  So I wonder, do all breeds of dogs with varying experience respond similarly?  Do abused dogs show the same propensity to salivate in anticipation of food?  Would fear and the lack of trust inhibit their responses?  Given a large amount of time and training could the dog whose personality had developed in a milieu of abuse learn to salivate like other dogs in response to the bell?  Would it follow then that the abused dogs would  become trusting and less fearful or would such dogs just learn to salivate to please their masters while remaining skittish and untrusting?

One of my favorite cryptic sayings:  If Pavlov had used cats instead of dogs, he would not have discovered the law that bears his name.  No amount of bell ringing would have made the cats salivate on cue.  Those of us who have lived with cats and dogs are very aware of the difference in these two species.   Whereas dogs thrive when dependent on humans, cats resist being controlled and seem to be driven to assert their indifference to following human directives.  Since human beings as a species are more diverse than cats, should not our complexity be addressed?  Unfortunately, our culture continues to incentivize the fruitless search and promotion of a one-size-fits-all solution for those who are struggling to find their way.

Even with the life-prolonging successes we see in dealing with diseases of the body (not an endorsement of dualism), we are still forced to pay tribute to unintended consequences – like the evolution of superbugs that challenge the benefits of antibiotics.  Magic, or what I might define as that which mystifies and stumps our usual ways of understanding, takes many forms.  When dealing with psychic suffering it can be argued that our standard approaches are often less successful than when we relied on magic.  A particular slice of magic that attracts me is the placebo effect.  Placebos, after many years of being dismissed as a confounding nuisance to be neutralized for research purposes, has risen to the status of independent variable worthy of study.  I wonder how hope, belief and expectation merges with and enhances the power of placebo.

Who among us is not familiar with pain, be it physical, emotional or spiritual.  We live with knowledge of our mortality and we choose a belief system (or use denial)  to make our inevitable death seem tolerable.   Perhaps for our ancestors, because it was necessary and reassuring to believe in magic, they were able to reap its benefits.   Absent modern pharmaceuticals, they treated physical and emotional pain with herbs, shamanic rituals and the support of the community

Life is mysterious and often less predictable then we are led to believe.  Francis Ashcraft, a scientist who is a professor of physiology at Oxford and author of the book, The Spark of Life has said, “All science is theory.  It is a continuing and evolving story narrative.”

After all of the  years of research dominated by a drug and illness approach to problems in living, we have not  benefited from the results to the extent that we have been promised.  Maybe it would be more fruitful to learn how to maximize Placebo Power.