Placebo prayers

Written by Ethan Engel on . Posted in Features

The placebo is finding a new identity as a medical celebrity. That means anybody who's interested in better health needs to take a fresh look at this mysterious, ancient and potentially effective healer.

A quick look at medical conditions without cure proves that real-life medical mysteries are all around us. Beyond the limited knowledge we do possess about these conditions are those maladies which haven’t even been identified or named yet. Stretching the imagination further, these unknown unknowns are growing as modern environments, lifestyles and genetics create new patterns of damage and dysfunction.

And to further baffle the state of the medical arts, the distinction between inherited and acquired disease, which has strongly influenced modern medical theory, is becoming irrelevant due to fascinating discoveries in epigenetics. Add to that the remarkable ineffectiveness of most prescription drugs due to genetic interference, a staggering death rate from prescriptions, and a medical profession that is probably the leading cause of death in our nation, and you have a real Pandora’s Box scenario.

The uncertainty of it all and the relative powerlessness of medicine to offer up real cures to the majority of patients is definitely not reassuring. And when serious ailments go undiagnosed, misdiagnosed or remain un-diagnosable by current methods and insurance claims guidelines, lives are thrown into turmoil and even the sanity of the suffering called into question.

The reality is that medicine is more art than science, especially in diagnosis and most certainly in effecting cures for chronic illness. For many sufferers the journey to correct diagnosis can be a desolate one, beset by false hopes, loss of faith in medicine, and other mental setbacks on top of the daily struggle with ill-health.


For almost every affliction we experience, it seems the mind demands a reasonable story to validate the pain or dysfunction with the how and the why of it. For this reason, mystery afflictions are accompanied by a deep and urgently felt need to be correctly diagnosed. In our medical paradigm this is the only path to a proper, and hopefully effective, treatment.

But why does relief come from simply having a name for what may be, or may not be causing our trouble? Well, that’s easy to answer with a little emotional arithmetic: uncertainty + powerlessness = anxiety.

Knowledge, true or false, if believed, reduces anxiety and reducing anxiety is essential for healing and especially for cure. It certainly plays a part in the miraculous and poorly understood placebo response.

Placebo responses are automatic, unconscious and unpredictable. According to the latest scholarship, such healings are a physical reflection of complex subconscious, neuro-biological interactions. The best guesses suspect interplay between the reward system of the brain and neurons, hard-wired procedural memories from infancy and the ideal world of fantasy and imagination.

Placebo responses are invisibly at work in all therapeutic effects, but the potency of the effect varies greatly from patient to patient. At the moment, the basic elements required to provoke placebo response are the same as those considered by current psychotherapies to be the foundation of a therapeutic relationship: a one-on-one dynamic rooted in concern, trust and empathy.

Does the L.I.F.E. system encourage a placebo response?

The self-healing mechanism called placebo is intimately involved in the history of all medicine. And it holds the promise that we are learning how to better harness its power. Excellent medical training teaches caregivers how to optimize placebo responses and the reality of the placebo phenomenon, though far from being understood, is increasingly considered crucial to the art and science of caregiving. The widespread inclusion of alternative and complementary therapies into the standard medical model under the rubric of Integrative Medicine, is clear evidence that patient choice, based on personal affinities, are now seen as essential to creating effective treatments.

In essence, sickness diminishes when earlier states of well-being are recreated. Effective health care providers facilitate therapeutic effects simply by evoking this state and those seeking healthcare help themselves immensely by finding empathic, communicative doctors whose mere presence delivers a feeling of being well cared-for.

Ethan Spring2012Ethan Engel is the associate editor of Marmapoints.

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