I'd always considered myself the robust type, immmune to all those flus and colds and throat infections that felled everyone around me. Then I had kids. It's been one cold after another, and it's not me I worry about. I can take it. I can also pretty much take any medication the doctor throws my way. But what's a 3-month old to do?
I took him in with a minor cough some weeks back; the doctor said they couldn't give him anything, too young and all that. We have to wait and see if it develops. Which it did. Into bronquitis. "What about prevention?" I yelled at the doctor, as my son wheezed and choked on his snot. "Now the poor bugger is on cortisone! Surely this can't be right?!" And he says to me: "Well, if you want prevention, you can try homeopathy. It doesn't have any scientific basis, but there is a significant placebo effect."
I didn't know whether to pull his or my hair out. "Who is it a placebo to?" I cried, my neck veins about to pop. "Because the baby doesn't know shit!" At which point the doctor decided he was extremely busy, and politely booted us out. But he had got me thinking...
At home, between screams from the little one, I started reading up about the placebo effect. The placebo effect has been well-researched (see UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute for research on placebo effect) although its existence - as the existence of virtually anything - is disputed by some placebo skeptics skeptics.
According to the UCLA NPI "Between 30 - 60% of patients with illnesses ranging from arthritis to depression report a substantial improvement in their symptoms after receiving a placebo." They also note that it is not clear that placebos (usually inert sugar pills) actually cure illnesses, but rather improve symptoms and reduce pain. A 2005 study by the UCLA NPI research team (in the context of antidepressant medication) found that placebos had an effect on brain activity (specifically the prefrontal area, "implicated in planning complex cognitive behaviors, personality expression, decision making and moderating correct social behavior" (source: wikipedia)). This was the first study to identify a link between brain function and placebo effects, thus shushing the skeptics with their claims that placebo effects found in studies are mostly due to methodological flaws, experimenter effects etc etc...
The secret of placebos lies in the power of expectation and belief. The more you believe the pill/medical intervention will work, the more likely it will relieve your symptoms - and the larger the effect. And the opposite is also true - the lower your expectation, the less likely there will be an effect. Even more interesting, if you believe the medical intervention will have a negative effect, the more likely this will be the case (known as a 'nocebo' effect)!
So we return to the theme of expectation and belief - brought up in previous posts in the context of psi activity.
If I believe something will be good for me - I get better. Well not really. As I mentioned earlier, placebos haven't actually been found to cure illnesses, but rather, relieve symptoms. So let me rephrase that: if I believe something wll be good for me, I'll feel better.
Nothing too wow-wee about that. I was hoping for some evidence of the paranormal. Instead, all this reading has led me to one conclusion: the placebo effect is not mysterious or magical or paranormal. Its downright normal. As Descartes put it: 'I think therefore I am'. So gullibility can be a good thing!
Now I have to convince the baby that these little sugar pills are going to make him feel better.
Bring on the energy healers...