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Belief: The Power of the (Misguided) Mind

I believe the recognition of this power is fundamental to Dr. Z's insistence that it not be used in a disingenuous way. In other words, don't bullshit someone and say you are going to realign their chakra with a Red-Bull and a jade egg.

I watched a video blog by ZDogg that centered on the difference between "homeopathy" and the placebo effect. It's worth watching, but I will quickly dilute it down as best I can: Dr. Damania ("Z" from now on) states that homeopathy has power because it is administered by a "practitioner" who espouses the benefits of some therapy (which typically has absolutely no actual physiologic effects) by describing some magical mechanism (or "bullshittery"). An example would be acupuncture, which in its traditional thought, is based on manipulation of flowing life force within meridians in the body; or a homeopathic remedy such as using lavender oil to treat anxiety. As Z says, the effects are real, but they based in the mind-body connection (which is also real); they are essentially forms of the placebo effect.

In case you aren't up on the lingo, "placebo" refers to the administration of an inert medication or other non-functional therapy, typically as a control in a clinical trial to better demonstrate the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of a treatment being studied. We know this placebo effect is real, but it is not magic, it is just poorly understood. And for millennia we have attributedthings we don't understand to the realms of the mystic. But instead of perpetuating the myth, why not study it, understand it better, and potentially use that knowledge for even greater benefit?

I believe there may be a monkey in the works: Belief.

Embedded, and potentially inseparable from the placebo effect, is belief. The patient-clinician relationship is imperative, as the patient has to fully accept thatthe therapy is real. So in essence, there is an underlying element of deception that I worry may be essential to the effect. Not everyone requires this disinformation, some can simply run with it (my father, a dentist, had a patent that could hypnotize herself such that she needed no anesthesia, even through painful procedures like a root canal). But I suspect few are actually that gifted.

There is power in belief. Great power. It is fundamental to religious conviction, and as history has demonstrated, capable of motivating a willing follower to unimaginable acts. But it can also give strength where it may otherwise be found lacking, allowing people to endure, to motivate them to overcome incredible obstacles. The mind-body connection can take many forms, but in the appropriate host and use in a positive manner, it can have life-altering effects.

I believe the recognition of this power is fundamental to Dr. Z's insistence that it not be used in a disingenuous way. In other words, don't bullshit someone and say you are going to realign their chakra with a Red-Bull and a jade egg. Instead, tell them that you are going to play some music or burn some incense, and though we don't know why, it may provide them some benefit. I agree that this is the most ethical path, but unfortunately, I also believe it will leave money on the table. I think there will patients that just won't get any benefit from a true placebo. And those same patients may receive tangible results from magic, simply because they believe; in the right circumstances, we should not deny them that benefit. The question is, how can this be done ethically?

For sure, it has the potential to allow exploitation -- with significant financial gain of the practitioner -- of gullible patients. Which is a problem. A big problem.

This is why it is absolutely imperative that we all recognize the incredible power of belief. Each of us must be careful in how we create and shape our own beliefs, because we are in a very real sense crafting our own hidden superpower. So if we build beliefs that are rooted in some egregious fallacy -- such as skin color dictates the worth of a human, or another person's refusal to accept your vision of God means that they must die -- then those beliefs may result in catastrophe.

These days, we continuously hear that we all need to be more accepting of other people's beliefs, to let them live how they see fit. I agree wholeheartedly, but at the same time, I find this horribly ironic, as many of these same people are often the least likely to truly accept those who have completely different philosophies about things like the nature of the universe. Even more interesting to me is the fact that we seem to have more trouble accepting belief systems that are near to us; we are much better at dealing with religions or cultures that are truly foreign. For example, in the US, non-Christians seem more offended and threatened by their Christian neighbors than they do Buddhists or Hindus.

I have certainly struggled with true acceptance of other belief systems. For one, I have been a doubter since childhood. I attended church virtually every Sunday with my family growing up (Methodist). I would listen to sermons and think, "Jesus said we are supposed to give everything away. I don't think we are listening." And then I would pester my parents at Roy Rogers (our weekly treat) as to the true nature of the universe.

Since becoming a doctor, I have found myself feeling geuinely threatened by those who would attempt to dismantle the triumphs of science. On the one hand, I don't really think someone's beliefs about the origin of the universe has significant impact. Yet when the arguments begin to erode the fundamental process of scientific discovery and therefor question its validity, then we begin to allow our society's collective knowledge to be eroded. We no longer accept sound arguments of our brightest minds, but instead are susceptible to being misguided by those who would exploit our ignorance (like Andrew Wakefield has done for decades).

How then do we reconcile this cognitive dissonance, and allow others to go through life believing things that are in complete contradiction to our own convictions? Particularly when we know that these beliefs have the ability to imbue a person with significant -- and real -- power? How does someone with deep religious convictions accept another who disputes the very concepts that they hold most dear? This is a topic for several other blogs, but it is a topic worth spending time on. I hope to spark your interest in pondering this quandary, because I think it may be at the very heart of what prevents us from truly accepting others. It represents a source or power that has been used to manipulate populations en masse to commit all manner of societal atrocities. And yet, if we were to overcome this shortfall, we have the potential to truly advance as a society, as humanity.

The mind-body connection is no more magical than any other awesome element of our reality. But we have yet to truly understand -- and unlock -- the potential. Perhaps in the study of this phenomenon we can also come to a better understanding of how to simply live with each other.