Dr. Matthew Paldy

The Mind: False Beliefs and Alternative Medicine

By Dr. Matthew Paldy

The placebo effect occurs when a person’s physical or mental health appears to improve after taking a placebo or ‘dummy’ treatment. Placebo is Latin for 'I will please' and refers to a treatment that appears real, but is designed to have no therapeutic benefit. A placebo can be a sugar pill, a water or salt water (saline) injection or even a fake surgical procedure. These "dummy" treatments can produce actual positive effects in people but the effect is due to the *belief* in the treatment rather than the treatment itself.

The placebo effect is a powerful one: "If someone A) receives treatment intended to make him better, and B) gets better, then no power of reasoning know to medical science can convince him that it may not have been the treatment that restored his health."

It is still not fully known exactly how the placebo effect works. Some of the theories that attempt to explain it include:

* Self-limiting disorders – many conditions, such as the common cold, are self-limiting. They will resolve by themselves anyway, with or without placebos or medications, and the end of symptoms is just a coincidence. * Remission – the symptoms of some disorders, such as multiple sclerosis and lupus, may come and go. A remission (period of time when the symptoms go away) during a course of placebos may be coincidence, and not due to the placebos at all. * A change in behaviour – the placebo may increase a person's motivation to take better care of themselves. Improved diet, regular exercise or rest may be responsible for the easing of their symptoms. * Altered perception – the person's interpretation of their symptoms may change with the expectation of feeling better. For example, they may interpret a sharp pain as an uncomfortable tingling instead. * Reduced anxiety – taking the placebo and expecting to feel better may be soothing and reduce the levels of stress chemicals the body produces, such as adrenaline. * Brain chemicals – placebos may trigger the release of the body's own natural pain relievers, the brain chemicals known as endorphins. * Altered brain state – research indicates that the brain responds to an imagined scene in much the same way as it responds to an actual visualised scene. A placebo may help the brain to remember a time before the onset of symptoms, and then bring about change to the body. This theory is called 'remembered wellness'. -- above source: https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au

There is a pervasive belief in holistic medicine that diseases are caused by mental states and can be cured by an exericse of will. "Ilness occurs when people don't grow and develop their potentials." says one holistic nursing textbook. The sick and disabled are subject to blame, by themselves and others, for their misfortune. While there are indeed health benefits from healthy living, exericse, and stress reduction, holistic medicine grossly overvalues the effect of these on advanced organic pathology. For example, there is a growing trend in holistic medicine that cancer patients can "cure themselves" by adopting a positive mental state. Research shows, however, that a positive mental state, while it may increase the quality of life, has no effect on cancer mortality rates. Such attributions of illness to mental states only serve to further blame the victims. It is reminiscent of how those who suffered from tuberculosis were blamed for their affliction before the discovery of the tubercle bacillus.

Alternative medicines and holistic healers usually don't claim to offer remedies for specific disabilities. They instead offer cures for relatively invisible or ambiguous maladies like bursitis, migraines, hearing loss.. Without a precise specification of what constitutes success and failure, our hopes and expectations can lead us to detect more support for a given treatment than is actually warranted. Even Nobel Prize winners can be misled by the juggling of ambiguous criteria: Linus Pauling, a long-time proponent of vitamin C as an antidote to the common cold and other physical ailments, was once asked whether it was true that he and his wife (who, of course, consume copious amounts of the vitamin) no longer suffer from colds. "It is true," he said, "We don't get colds at all." Then he added, "Just sniffles."

This reliance on ambiguity is shown in an anecdote about a Frenchman who visited Lourdes, a location in France famous for its "healing energy." After seeing an abundance of discarded eyeglasses, hearing aids, canes, etc.., he remarked, "What? No artificial limbs?"

The careful study of the mind, including psychotherapy and psychoanalysis here in NYC, benefits the patient by illuminating previously hidden thought patterns and their subsequent effects on behaviors and feelings.