Friday, August 23, 2013

Believing and assuming

I try to stay current with Herbert Benson's writings.  He is the retired MD from the Harvard Medical School who is the main figure for medical and scientific investigation of what can be called "non-mental body responses."  Oddly enough, such responses can include mental ones.  Benson was asked by practitioners of transcendental meditation to look for physical effects of meditation in their bodies, back in the 70's.

Just as there is a flight, fight or freeze response pattern in the body to danger, there is a calming pattern in the body and Benson has been studying it ever since.  His book "The Relaxation Response" (1972) was about the subject of calling forth that calming pattern and he has had several since then on related subjects.  One of the more recent books is "The Relaxation Revolution" about broader applications and implications of regular, deep, conscious relaxation.

I hadn't read his "Timeless Healing" but the other day, I started it.  The part that I remember best is his reports on placebos.  I have referred elsewhere to research on the color of placebo pills that shows particular colors are more effective as placebo pills for particular ailments.  This article on Wired's web site has some interesting information on what appears to be an increase in the effectiveness of placebos.  Naturally, Benson and others interested in the total body and in the connections between the mind and the rest of the body pay attention to the entire phenomenon of fake pills and their effects.

Benson reports research where men who failed to take their placebo medicine regularly as prescribed did not fare as well as men in the same group who did take their placebos as prescribed.  That really gets me but there is more.  Researchers have found that a placebo and a rival medicine may switch places in the final results if the trials are moved to another country.  They have found, for instance, that Germans may react more positively to a placebo for one ailment than Italians do but that a different pill, given for a different ailment may be more effective for the Italians than the Germans.


As the article in the Wikipedia on placebos points out, the number and color of the pills, the size of the pills, what if anything is stamped on the pill, the enthusiasm of the doctor for the pill can all affect the power of a placebo or a medicine.  It is very clear that what we believe, what we assume (maybe without even realizing we are assuming) and what we expect can all have very powerful effects on our bodies, our healing and our lives.

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