Today’s Solutions: June 08, 2023

What the placebo effect tells us about the healing power of the brain.

David Servan-Schreiber | May 2009 issue

In the lab, Takeo couldn’t stand it anymore. The itching was driving him crazy. He watched his right arm turn red and wondered why he’d decided to take part in this experiment. He knew he was allergic to poison ivy (Rhus radicans). So what was the point of re-exposing himself? An hour later, Takeo refused to believe what Yujiro Ikemi, founder of the Institute of Psychosomatic Medicine at Kyushu University in Fukuoka, Japan, was telling him: The Rhus radicans extract hadn’t been applied to his right arm (which, nevertheless, had continued to swell) but his left, which was showing no symptoms.
What made his right arm swell so much wasn’t poison ivy at all, but a harmless leaf. Takeo, like half the participants of this experiment, was reacting to the idea of the allergy, not the physical reality.
Modern medicine, which doesn’t always understand this power of the mind over the body, calls it the “placebo effect.” This refers to the cultural and relational factors that make someone who’s sick feel better when a doctor prescribes treatment, regardless of its biological impact. Nowadays, doctors think they know everything about the placebo effect. They were taught that 30 percent of sick people treated with placebos show signs of improvement. But they’re also taught that this improvement is subjective and temporary—because the illness continues to take its course.
Yet after studying the placebo effect, some scientists wonder whether it may be one of the strongest driving forces in medicine. A study published in Clinical Psychology Review in 1993 concludes that several types of placebos are effective in treating illnesses such as stomach ulcers, angina pectoris and herpes 70 percent of the time. In addition, rare but famous cases testify to the effectiveness of placebos in reducing cancerous tumors or regenerating the immune cells of AIDS sufferers. The part of our brains known as the hypothalamus directs the distribution of essential hormones and operates the diffuse network of nerves controlling the function of the internal organs. The most intriguing mechanism is that proposed by pharmacologist Candace Pert, author of Molecules Of Emotion: The Science Behind Mind-Body Medicine. She demonstrated that neuropeptides—molecules that help transmit messages among the brain’s neurons—affect the behavior of nearly all the body’s cells. This means what we refer to as our mind isn’t located just in the brain but throughout the body. It also implies that, driven by the comings and goings of these molecular messengers, the mind constitutes an immense communications network encompassing the functions of the organism.
So what is the placebo effect? Everything we don’t know about the capacity of the brain to heal the body. Therein, undoubtedly, lies the secret of the shamans and other healers. Their rituals, chants and restorative acts address the most archaic parts of the brain, those that regulate our organism and can participate in its healing.
Scientific medicine has lost this knowledge, replacing it with mechanical principles that allow the illness to be cured without speaking to the sufferer’s spirit. In practice, you can take advantage of these mind-body connections. Find a doctor whose personality is comforting and who knows how to listen to your life story. Ask him to explain your symptoms and the proposed treatment. And finally, invite her to describe the stages that will guide you from illness to well-being.
David Servan-Schreiber is a French psychiatry professor and the author of Healing without Freud or Prozac
and Anticancer.

It’s not all in your mind

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