The placebo effect in healing should not be dismissed lightly, argues Stephen Wright. More and more studies are illuminating the connection between mind, body and spirit
By Stephen Wright
Beliefs, consciousness and the mind have a lot more to do with health and healing than modern science understands or will admit to.
Oxford University recently set up a department for the exploration of mind and consciousness. It was spurred in part by general ignorance in society of the mind-body-spirit connection.
Recently, on a surgical ward, I was practising the healing approach of therapeutic touch (TT). There was no hostility, but there was certainly a degree of dismissal from some quarters. The ultimate put down TT often attracts is that old chestnut: Of course, it'sjust a placebo effect.'
There is much evidence to illustrate the connection between belief and physiological effects (Pert 1997, Peters 2002). Numerous studies have shown that giving an inert substance in a drug trial often has the same effect as giving the drug itself.
The placebo effect is still an effect. It seems that placebos can assist in the cure of disease just as well,'as long as the patient believes they might be getting the real drug or treatment' (Hamer 2004).
There have been compelling studies into 'non-local healing' - the change in a person's physical state, for example in the cure of disease, when there is the intention of another to heal through prayer or'sending healing energy'.
Pert has illustrated one mechanism, the healing neuropeptide flow, that is unleashed when we let go of anxiety and start to feel better emotionally. Psychoneuroimmunology now underpins work in places such as the Bristol Cancer Help Centre.
The noted author and educator Jeanne Achterberg stunned the audience at a recent conference in Cumbria with her findings. She used a randomised, double-blind controlled trial and an MRI scanner to see what happens when healers'send'their healing to a patient.
Eleven healers were asked to practise their craft while a patient was underthe scanner in a different room.
In nine cases, when the healer got to work, the patient's brain literally lit up the scanner. It is the first demonstrable evidence I have seen of a change in the body when a healer is at work in a different room from that of the patient. The effect of patients'belief that they are being helped, or whether some unknown energy is being 'sent'by the healers, is discussed in Achterberg's study, now in press.
However, if the placebo effect works, there can also be a downside: what Hamer(2004) calls the 'nocebo' effect. His survey of negative expectations of health, for example among people who are depressed or feel God has abandoned them, raises some alarming concerns. Many studies on religiosity suggest positive benefits for health. But when we believe that we are not loved by God, or even worse that God has turned against us, or if we are atheist, we feel hopeless, unloved or that there is no future for us, we are more likely to get sick or die.
Mind, body and spirit are part of a whole, weaving together the complex pattern we call health. What more studies are showing is that the pattern can be unwoven as well, not just by the attacks of disease, but also by our state of consciousness
Hamer D (2004) The God Gene. Doubleday, New York, NY.
PertC (1997) Molecules of Emotion. Scribner, New York, NY.
Peters D (Ed) (2002) Understanding the Placebo Effect in Complementary Medicine - Theory, Practice and Research. Churchill Livingstone, Edinburgh.
Stephen Wright is professor at the Faculty of Health and Social Care, St Martin's College, Carlisle, and chair of the Sacred Space Foundation
SOURCE: Red Nova