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Posts Tagged ‘placebo response’

Faith healing and magic

Posted by c. wagner on November 12, 2009

The girlfriend just finished James Randi’s The Faith Healers, which I read earlier. We had a long and emotional conversation about Randi’s statement that those who believe in faith healers don’t question the reality of what they’re seeing. Especially in light of the fact that Randi was a professional magician.

She argued that Randi was being hypocritical, criticizing those who follow and fund faith healers for being gullible and absolutely blasting the healers for being liars and cheats, while depending on a similar suspension of disbelief to earn his living. She also noted that faith healers provide a service to their devotees, with the placebo response to their “healings” making folks feel better.

I don’t agree on the first point. The difference between a magician and a faith healer is something I’ve heard a lot of magicians say: Magicians are honest about their dishonesty. As an adult, you know going in that they are performing are tricks or illusions. That they have no skills that others can’t develop. That they are not tapping into some power outside of themselves. Some of them even dare you to figure out how they’ve created the illusion. Faith healers do none of these things. They may be using magicians’ tricks, but they claim that God is working through them and really, truly causing something unusual to happen.

Magicians work on two levels. Viewers who suspend disbelief can see the seemingly impossible happen. Those who view it all as trickery can marvel at the skill with which the magician makes it seem like the impossible is happening. Faith healers have only the first level. The healing works if and only if you believe the impossible really is happening.

Even more important, magic is entertainment. You don’t base life decisions on what magicians tell you. You pay your money to have fun for an hour or so. At worst, you go home and spend hours trying to reproduce something you saw. Faith healing is not entertainment. At its best, it’s a comforting ritual and a connection with others who have similar beliefs. At its worst, it can inspire a dependence on the healer and other sources of spiritual authority, undermining the devotees’ confidence in themselves and their control over their lives.

It’s harder to argue about the placebo response. Many doctors have ethical qualms about handing out pills that do nothing for a patient (although that doesn’t stop some of them for giving out antibiotics to treat viral infections). If it makes a person feel better, what’s the harm, right? Hell, who I am to argue about this stuff? I used to get regular acupuncture treatment and massages. They did nothing for my underlying condition, but they did make me feel better.

But is that really a service to the person being treated? They feel better, but they also might forgo a doctor’s care (like I did) in favor of the placebo results.

Is it better to tell yourself a lie (not necessarily a big one) or to accept the reality of the situation and work with that?

I’m not sure where I stand on this issue yet. I’m evolving.

In Randi’s world, lying to oneself and others about the nature of reality is never acceptable and he has no tolerance for those who do lie, especially when they can cause others harm. None. This makes him and his ideas tough to deal with. It’s a tough and scary world, in a lot of ways. Scares the heck out of me a lot of the time.

But it’s still empowering. It gives you the ability to make changes for yourself, to protect yourself, to make yourself who you want to be, without help from external forces (other than a little help from your human friends).

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Should I just take the sugar pills now?

Posted by c. wagner on November 4, 2009

This is just plain weird to me. The placebo response is getting stronger. It’s harder for new medicines in the United States to outperform sugar pills.

Two comprehensive analyses of antidepressant trials have uncovered a dramatic increase in placebo response since the 1980s. One estimated that the so-called effect size (a measure of statistical significance) in placebo groups had nearly doubled over that time.

Maybe the homeopaths and their sugar pills really are on the cutting edge. Maybe I should stop making fun of them….

Nah. That can’t be it.

A few studies exploring why this seems to be happening have been published.

These new findings tell us that the body’s response to certain types of medication is in constant flux, affected by expectations of treatment, conditioning, beliefs, and social cues.

In other words (and in part), as we’ve gotten used to pills curing what ails us, our response to any old pill has become more powerful.

And, in attempting to figure out why, researchers have learned a lot more about how the nervous system works. Pretty cool.

Read the article at Wired.

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