Thursday, February 4, 2016

from the mind

The mind, the body and the emotions interact, of course.  It is thrilling but understandable that the wrestler or boxer who is losing perks up and reverses his match when he hears the voices of buddies shouting in support.  If there is one common idea to reversing failure, it must be "Try harder".

What happens when we try harder?  We actually tighten our jaw muscles, we squint, we take a deep breath and then we make a new effort.  Michael Merzenich ("Soft-wired" and other writings) has concentrated on evidence that things in the brain change when we do an action with intention, as opposed to just taking the action off on the side while actually attending to something else.

In the West, in the US and especially these days, we are physically minded.  Not that we pay all that much attention to our bodies throughout the day, what with all that sitting, and watching screens.  But over the last centuries, we have found good things when we concentrate more on physics and less on psychics.  That concentration is still part of the mind, though, and the mind is still where much of human life focuses.  I can't be interested in the mind and its powers without the subject of placebos and nocebos coming up.  Placebos are the sugar pills and the fake medical treatments used to see what just having a belief that I am being treated for a problem does to the problem. Nocebos are negative placebos, as when you think you have swallowed the wrong pill and suffer from that belief when in fact you never took the wrong one.

The book "Cure: A Journey into the Science of Mind Over Body" is a recent one on the subject.  The author is a scientist and a good writer.  She relates that some scientists felt it was unethical to withhold the treatment medicine from some patients while letting them believe they were getting or possibly getting the treatment pill.  That lead some researchers to try "honest" placebos.  Here, the doctor tells me that the pill is inert and contains nothing of power or importance.  Yep, we still get a placebo effect.  People who themselves said they understood the pill from the doctor was not powerful still did better, sometimes dramatically better than those who didn't get a pill.  Further, once the supply of powerless pills ran out, the problem with the gut or whatever returned.

I am impressed that so-called "honest placebos" are on sale, labeled as "placebo" or something more fanciful, like "happiness pills" or "princess pills". Depending on your opinion and such things, you might want to try some.

Further, some studies have more or less left the patient completely out of the equation.  In this case, half of the doctors got a pill with medicinal ingredients in it to give to their patients and half of them got a pill for their patients with no medical contents.  Again!  The patients with physicians who believed that they got the "real" pills did better than the patients whose docs thought they had given patients sugar pills.

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