It is well known that pills and potions with no active ingredients can be just as effective as pharmaceutical/chemical medicines. Sometimes they are more effective, depending on how they are administered. They can cure illnesses for no other reason than the patient trusts the doctor and believes they can. Despite the research evidence, placebos are still treated as a bit of a joke, as if patients are ‘fooled’ into getting well.
Of course, the pharmaceutical industry hates them – where’s the profit in simple, unbranded sugar pill? Or the credit? So the medical establishment – bankrolled by big pharma – considers them unethical. They say that giving patients pills with no active ingredients while pretending they are something else is deliberate deception. They dismiss them as useless and – worse – dishonest. Of course whether they are dishonest is a moot point, but useless they most certainly aren’t.
Placebos utilise the power of suggestion. Suggestion is a major influence on all our lives. Advertisers and politicians know this perfectly well, of course, and so do parents. When you were a child, did your mother ever ‘kiss it better’ when you hurt yourself? And it did feel better, didn’t it, even though there was no logical reason why it should? Doctors’ waiting rooms, white coats, stethoscopes and prescription pads are all loaded with suggestion. So are crystals, incenses, relaxation CDs, coloured lights and massage oils.
Research has shown over and over again that the effectiveness of placebos can be enhanced by skilfully enhancing their suggestive power. The colour of the pill, its name and packaging, the practitioner’s manner, the layout of the consulting room and waiting room, the language used and so on can all be manipulated to increase its healing power.
We may congratulate ourselves that this is a recent discovery, but it’s actually as old as our ability to smelt iron and build pyramids. We’ve always known that there’s a close connection between body and mind. Anxious thoughts can give rise to headaches, an upset stomach and so on. We tremble with fear and feel excitement at the sight of a lover.
So why did the Western medical establishment ignore the mind-body connection for so long? Put simply, you can’t see thoughts and you can’t measure their progress through the body. Then in the nineteen seventies and eighties, mainstream scientists discovered the physical processes by which thoughts and emotions manifested as physical changes in the body.
Today, most doctors have made the connection. They understand that many illnesses have a psycho-somatic component, but there’s still much work to be done before it is fully understood, and we’re a long way off finding effective treatments for many psycho-somatic conditions.
It’s all a matter of belief. Most treatments only get optimum results if the patient believes in them. On the other hand, some beliefs are toxic. People who believe that illness is a sign of failure on their part, a punishment for wrongdoings and errors they have made heal slowly, if at all. And research shows that those who believe their illness is related to something that happened in a past life heal the slowest of all.
I used to know a lady who read palms, tarot cards and a crystal ball. Her readings were widely known in the area for their accuracy. I asked her what she actually saw in the crystal ball. She said nothing at all – it was just a ‘prop’ to add a touch of mystique to the proceedings. Smiling, she told me, ‘The information comes to me directly, as thought-impressions, words, mental images and sometimes physical sensations. The crystal ball is just there to impress the clients and make them feel they’re getting their money’s worth.’
I know some complementary practitioners who get excellent results with their clients by intuition. They quickly sense where the problem lies by observing and asking questions, and whatever tools and techniques they use – crystals, reiki, flower essences and so on, even homeopathy – are less important than whether the client thinks they work.
Some very sophisticated appliances – including computerised scanning devices with impressive graphics that utilise the language of energetic medicine and quantum physics – are little more than random number generators. Readings are hit and miss, cannot be verified nor replicated. Some of the ‘remedies’ connected to these devices have no demonstrable effect yet are sold at great expense; they are nothing but placebos. Sure, some clients get well, and that can’t be a bad thing, but many feel no benefit. It all depends on the confidence projected by the practitioner’s ‘performance’ (for this is what it is). If the client is unwilling to suspend disbelief, they get little or no benefit while paying through the nose for the experience.
However, just because there are some sharp operators in the market does not mean that we should dismiss placebos in general. The fact that they can work tells us something very important about illness and recovery. It actually tells us more about the way humans heal than any number of double-blind trials. They are the proof that, given the right circumstances, the belief in our ability to heal and that healing is taking place is all that is necessary.
Rather than polluting our bodies with chemicals and suffering their nasty side effects, wouldn’t it be better for the medical profession to investigate placebos more fully, and find better ways of using them? A medical version of the crystal ball – one that helps people to get well without causing them harm – would surely be a major advance!
©David Lawrence Preston, 18.5.2018
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