The use of a placebo (also known as a sugar pill) in drug experiments is no longer under cover. Tests are being conducted where the participants in drug trials know that the treatment they are being given is nothing but an inert pill. And, the amazing thing is, it still works!
Ted Kaptchuk, director of the Program in Placebo Studies and the Therapeutic Encounter at Harvard University, has garnered national attention for his intriguing studies on the surprising power of placebos. ‘The great benefit of an open label placebo,’ he says, ‘is that it’s an honest placebo. No deception is involved.’
‘Open label placebo’ sounds like an oxymoron! But a group of researchers at Harvard University is finding that placebos have evident properties in the alleviation of pain and fatigue.
One assumption, among others these scientists made, was that the drug studied along with the placebo wasn’t effective either; but other tests have produced convincing evidence that something deeper is going on. Researchers are beginning to surmise that there is an underlying mental process that needs closer examination.
How can an inert pill affect the body? Some researchers think it can be chalked up to expectations and conditioning. Most of us, throughout our lives, take a pill and see an effect. There is an association established in our minds that taking a pill (inert or otherwise) may actually produce a beneficial effect.
Expectations are powerful. For example, when a physician writes a prescription, the patient’s expectation is that it is going to help. Research also shows that other ‘mental’ aspects of the treatment setting make a difference – for example, warm and caring physicians have patients who tend to recover sooner.
What is creating a positive outcome? The idea of the healing power of the mind is nothing new. The placebo effect appears to be the creation of health by belief – either the faith we hold in the physician’s opinion or the prediction of a pill’s effect.
Yet, placebos don’t work all the time. They do, though, give us a glimpse into an alternate probability to better health and recovery.
What if healing is possible without a pill – real or otherwise – or the hope placed in a person or a prescription pad?
The most consistent, documented results of healing without any medicinal intervention are those recorded as the works of Jesus. He spoke of the healing he produced being the result of his oneness with God, and was clear that he could ‘of his own self do nothing.’
Some people came to him with the expectation of healing, but even so, his work was more consistent than any modern day research indicates is possible through simple mind-body manipulation.
And, not all of Jesus’ healings happened in a setting where there was expectation of healing.
For example, in one of my favourite Biblical accounts of Jesus’ approach to healing is the story of a man who, for thirty-some years, sat by a pool waiting for a stirring of the water. He was there because he and others of his day believed the stirring was caused by an angel and would heal whoever first then got into the water.
Is this not similar to the belief of health associated with a pill? Jesus did not sugar-coat his words when he commanded the man to take up his bed and go home – back to an active and productive life. The man was healed immediately and gladly complied. And, he did not even expect to be healed by this passing stranger – no placebo effect going on there.
Jesus, in his multiple healings, must have understood the connection between the human and the Divine. He credited his ability – the power – to heal to the ‘will of the Father which sent me.’ And there was no health condition presented to him that was not conquered. His healings proved how the power of God is an active influence for good in our lives.
Jesus’ causal effect of health was never attributed to any material means – be it a placebo or the medicinal treatments of his day. And he promised that we each have the ability to connect with the same divine power to produce health. He said: ‘The person who trusts me will not only do what I’m doing but even greater things….You can count on it.’
His disciples carried on in the healing work, individuals through the centuries have carried it on, and it continues today.
We are all seeking consistently effective solutions to our health problems. One step would be to glimpse the healing power of the divine; to rediscover that the power to heal is not in some form of chemistry, even the sugar-coated kind.
As I am a community blogger throughout Ontario on Metroland Media, you can read this article on the York Region edition.