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Explaining away the placebo effect

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The best attested effect in medicine. Here:

One common explanation for the efficacy of some alternative medicine is the ‘placebo effect’. If there is a placebo effect, it still has the healing effect. So why not go with that? It doesn’t really matter what’s in the black box: the mechanism of healing isn’t the crucial thing, all that matters is that when you take this particular tablet, it relieves your headache.

Yes, a placebo can be very useful, and it may be that some of the effect of conventional medicine is achieved through placebo. But, of course, we know that it’s not just placebo when we’ve done the science. We know that, in fact, these drugs really do have medicinal effects. You might think that it’s worth prescribing placebo just because it’ll make people feel better. Some doctors in the past have done precisely that: they have prescribed sugar pills to alleviate somebody’s depression, say, and the pills have worked just fine. But when it comes to other serious diseases which you want cured, a placebo is not going to work. It may improve your mood; you may feel happier; it may reduce the pain to some extent, if you believe it’s going to have that effect. But if you actually want somebody cured of a serious illness such as cancer, a placebo won’t work. There’s also the question of whether state funds should be given to fund placebo treatments. If lots of people believe blancmange head rubs cure headaches should the NHS then be funding that kind of blancmange treatment? I think the answer is: No, the NHS should not be funding that. If that’s so, then neither should it be funding these alternative medicines, even if they do work as placebos. In many cases it’s clear that that’s all they really are.

There’s a particularly pernicious aspect of this, because people who are ill are often desperate, and looking for miracle cures, and some alternative therapies are supposed, according to their exponents, to be superior to conventional medicine in their ability to remove the symptoms.

No. Lots of people who have a headache just want headache relief. They know what to do with their lives afterward.

If headache relief doesn’t work, a deeper issue should be sought. But there is usually no urgent reason to avoid simpler remedies first.

Most wars on the placebo effect are wars against the reality of consciousness.

Put another way, part of what is happening to any human being is what he thinks is happening to him. He may be mistaken, but it is still what he is experiencing. So understanding the placebo effect is part of treating the whole person.

See also: What great physicists have said about immateriality and consciousness

 

The war on the human mind

6 Replies to “Explaining away the placebo effect

  1. 1
    bornagain77 says:

    Of related interest:

    The evidence that mind can effect healing in the body is, in rather dramatic fashion, now established by Schwartz’s work in brain plasticity:

    The Case for the Soul – InspiringPhilosophy – (4:03 minute mark, Brain Plasticity including Schwartz’s work) – Oct. 2014 – video
    The Mind is able to modify the brain (brain plasticity). Moreover, Idealism explains all anomalous evidence of personality changes due to brain injury, whereas physicalism cannot explain mind.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oBsI_ay8K70

    In fact not only is the mind now shown to be able to have a pronounced effect on the physical structure of the brain, but the mind is now also shown to have pronounced effects all the way down to the genetic level of the body:

    Scientists Finally Show How Your Thoughts Can Cause Specific Molecular Changes To Your Genes, – December 10, 2013
    Excerpt: “To the best of our knowledge, this is the first paper that shows rapid alterations in gene expression within subjects associated with mindfulness meditation practice,” says study author Richard J. Davidson, founder of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds and the William James and Vilas Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
    “Most interestingly, the changes were observed in genes that are the current targets of anti-inflammatory and analgesic drugs,” says Perla Kaliman, first author of the article and a researcher at the Institute of Biomedical Research of Barcelona, Spain (IIBB-CSIC-IDIBAPS), where the molecular analyses were conducted.,,,
    the researchers say, there was no difference in the tested genes between the two groups of people at the start of the study. The observed effects were seen only in the meditators following mindfulness practice. In addition, several other DNA-modifying genes showed no differences between groups, suggesting that the mindfulness practice specifically affected certain regulatory pathways.
    http://www.tunedbody.com/scien.....ges-genes/

    The preceding finding is simply completely unexpected for atheists/materialists! In other words, we are not such helpless victims of our genes that materialists such as Richards Dawkins (selfish gene) would have us believe!

    But these finding should not really be all that surprising. The genetic reductionism model was absurd to begin with. The following humorous video gets the absurdity inherent in the genetic reductionism model across very well:

    John Cleese – The Scientists – – video
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-M-vnmejwXo

    Verse and Music:

    Luke 10:39-42
    She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”
    “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

    Big Daddy Weave – Every Time I Breathe (Official Video)
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w70xy8sPEE4

  2. 2
    goodusername says:

    Most wars on the placebo effect are wars against the reality of consciousness.

    Where is there a “war on the placebo effect”? Where is anyone doubting the reality of consciousness?

  3. 3
    Robert Byers says:

    I do think the mind, to me a memory machine, can interfere with sickness which deals with memories. Yet the biological reality is that we are a machine. Fake things don’t work well in reality.
    I think that when people get sick, they then get sicker just because they knopw they are sick. Why not?
    So a suger pill making you think your healing would simply take the added margin of sickness away that came from ones fear of it.
    Cause and effect.
    IO have become sick myself because I thought I was sick when I wasn’t.
    I’m sensitive for sure.
    Yet placebos won’t help my eye problems.
    use what works.

  4. 4
    Paul Giem says:

    The best use of the placebo effect is in conjunction with something that actually works without it. One simply tells the patient the truth (this pill will help you), perhaps explains it to the patient, and doesn’t worry too much about whether the patient understands; simply believing that the doctor has one’s best interests at heart and knows what he/she is doing, activates the placebo effect, which now is combined with the intrinsic effect of the medicine to give an effect that is better than either one alone. You don’t have to separate the two.

    goodusername (#2),

    Where is anyone doubting the reality of consciousness?

    It is not that uncommon for materialists to deny the reality of consciousness, or to regard it as an illusion. I am surprised that you haven’t run into this idea yet. You would be perfectly correct to protest that this is wrong, but that doesn’t mean that some materialists don’t believe this, or at least say they do.

  5. 5
    Mark Frank says:

    Most wars on the placebo effect are wars against the reality of consciousness.

    Denyse – where do you dream up these scare stories?  The placebo effect is accepted science and has no relationship to theory of mind or consciousness.  The open questions are things like – why does it happen, what are its limits, how best to take advantage of it?
    There is a separate issue in the article which you have muddled with the discussion over the placebo effect. What should we do when desperate people turn to alternative medicine that does not in fact work?

  6. 6
    goodusername says:

    Paul Giem,

    It is not that uncommon for materialists to deny the reality of consciousness, or to regard it as an illusion. I am surprised that you haven’t run into this idea yet. You would be perfectly correct to protest that this is wrong, but that doesn’t mean that some materialists don’t believe this, or at least say they do.

    I’ve seen arguments that certain aspects of consciousness are an illusion, or explanations for consciousness that many find unsatisfactory, but I haven’t actually come across someone arguing against the reality of consciousness.

    I’ve read some articles about the “illusion of consciousness” but they mean it only in the “it’s not quite what it seems” sense (sometimes with sensationalist titles) not a “it doesn’t exist” sense. (After all, if consciousness is an illusion in the sense of not existing, then who’s having the illusion?)

    I don’t read heavily on this subject though. One work I’ve been tempted to read because I see it brought up here and elsewhere occasionally is “Consciousness Explained” by Dennett which some claim denies the reality of consciousness. While I haven’t read that book, I’ve read some passages from the book, and I’ve read a couple other works by him, and watched a couple talks he gave on the subject and he certainly seems to affirm the existence of consciousness.

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