Placebo

The magic sugar pill.

By request. Repeats a bit from other posts but who cares.

Here's an interesting experiment for you to try. Sit quietly somewhere and collect yourself, as the saying goes, so that you're in a state of relaxed focus. Give yourself a few minutes to get into this state. Then close your eyes and say "I'm getting warm" quietly, over and over (the quicker the better) and without a pause between each instance. And don't will yourself to be warm, say the words as if they mean nothing to you at all, as if the movement of your mouth in saying these words is completely meaningless, with no thought about warm-ness at all.

Maybe you got warmer. I find this does work, but the critical and most interesting thing is that if you introduce any element of will or trying into the process, it immediately fails. You must say the words as if you were completely disinterested in the outcome, and also physically mouthing the words, even in a whisper, makes the effect stronger (if you just repeat the words in your head the effect is not as strong). It works terrifically for pain or other symptom relief - just use the phrase "it's going away", with the it being the symptom you want to relieve that you're then focused on. I've sttopped even heart arrhythmic events doing this.

There are several therapeutic approaches that use this sort of thing. In the early days of scientific psychology, it was called autosuggestion. If you read the literature on hypnosis you'll find the same emphasis upon the absence of will, of the effectiveness of hypnotic phenomena and how central it is that the subject not actually try to achieve the hypnotic effect (sometimes called 'dissociation'). Milton Erickson once said that self-hypnosis often failed because people couldn't be trusted to not try and achieve the hypnotic outcome, which is the same thing said in another way.

So what has all of this to do with the placebo effect? The placebo effect is often held up as an example of the possible effects that our minds can have over our bodies. It's a contested phenomenon, but is widely accepted as being a real thing in some situations. Leaving aside the comical dismissiveness you hear about it in phrases like 'just a placebo' - if something happened, what's the 'just' about? It worked, let's find out why.

What you don't often see is anybody standing back, and the same applies for hypnosis and other techniques which work in this area, and questioning the basic assumptions. Most notably, you will only end up with a mind-over-matter scenario if you start by believing that mind and matter/body are separate things in the first place. The placebo efffect and hypnotic phenomena appear miraculous from within that framework, but this then is also what marginalises them, because at the end of the day you're left saying that mind influences matter, but how that influence actually works is a complete, unfathomable mystery. Now one principle I live by is that if something looks unfathomable, you're almost certainly looking at it the wrong way, and there's likely a much simpler explanation waiting in the wings.

What if there were no such thing as mind in the first place, separate to matter? Which I argued in the past few entries. If you know a bit about the history of ideas you'll see that this division was entirely artificial, and deliberately created. Because in that schema not only is mind separate to matter, and a 'conscious' and imaginative and creative thing, but matter then assumes the dead rump of that split, becoming inert and mindless - just dead 'stuff'. But anybody who works with matter, like a chemist for example, knows how stupid this is. And it's amazing how many scientists sign up to this silly split, because they should know better from their experiences with matter every day. Matter is alive. It is unpredictable, always changing, always surprising (I did a blog post about this here). Chemical and physical properties are always unstable and changing, it's just that some change over very long time frames from the human perspective and thus appear to us as inert. At every level too, it's not just down with the quanta that matter behaves in extraordinary, unpredictable and creative ways.

So if you strip that framework away, it suddenly becomes much less surprising that things like the placebo effect and hypnosis exist and work. What these techniques do in every case, if you look closely, is help the person dissolve that artifical split they've been perpetuating between what they think is their mind/brain, and reality, including their body. This is why hypnosis for example so often involves processes of focused concentration upon objects and things, because when you build that focus your separation from the object disappears - you become 'immersed' in your experience. You are 'one with the object'. And why if you strip the will or trying out of the exercise I described at the top, it works much better. Will and trying are part of that other framework of 'me and reality', or 'me and my body'. It's me trying to change reality, artifically trying to step outside it and make it do things.

John Kabat Zinn uses meditation in serious scientific studies of healing to prove the same thing, meditation being not all that different from hypnotic focus. He proved for example in proper testing that psoriasis sufferers healed much faster if they meditated during UV light treatement, and has recently shown the same in studies of flu vaccination, where patients who meditated showed a significantly higher immune response to flu vaccination, and thus dealt with the flu a lot better.

But unless you strip away the mind-body-reality framework in the first place, which is an entirely scientific thing to do if you take materialism seriously, all of this sort of work will seem like mystical mumbo jumbo. And practitioners of these techniques do themselves a disservice by sticking to that framework, because it makes the entirly practical things they're achieving seem like magic voodoo. And it stops them exploring why this works and therefore developing even more powerful techniques.

How'd I do Dot? ;)

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