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Placebo Strangeness

Here’s a nicely done video describing the inherent weirdness of the “Placebo Effect”:

Listening to scientists you tend to get the feeling that they find the placebo effect to be something pathological – perhaps a knee-jerk materialist reaction to something effective arriving simply out of a belief – and thus to be eliminated if at all possible. When it’s said that “such-and-such only works due to a placebo effect”, should it matter more that it has no ‘scientific’ basis, or does it matter more that it works? An interesting question…what do you think?

  1. Talismans are nothing new of
    Talismans are nothing new of course. The more care that is taken in their conception the better they work which is why hypodermically injected placebos work better than pills. At the heart of these phenomenon is the ceremony, but you can’t be careless with the ceremony. If you are careless the placebo or nocebo has a higher chance of not working.
    These are just baby steps along the way to understanding just how powerful mind is and how plastic reality is.

  2. Both!
    I think it’s got to matter most that it works. We all use it every time we take an aspirin or a paracetamol after all. It is not like aspirin and paracetamol are not placebo treatments, they have their placebo components, it is that a sugar pill is only a placebo. The reason we use placebo control groups is because they allow for a minimum baseline, the minimum affect of a pill or injection. So if you sell a placebo you are giving someone the minimum treatment – not the minimum + the active treatment. So there is an ethical side.

    1. from the Self-Reflexivity-Dept.
      The ethics of which (and the lens with which our culture views things) is a kind of protestantism — where the stuff of the mind (creativity, imagination, ideas, feelings, thoughts, stories, myths, Jungian synchronicities?) are thought of as a kind of lesser reality than what we can touch, taste, etc ‘out there’.

      Thus, in the video, the narrator says that our minds ‘fool’ us.

      1. True in some senses, but not
        True in some senses, but not in many. Our feelings, stories, myths etc can be voided by any natural disaster of significant enough proportions. Hell, the entire planet can be destroyed by some events.

        It is only in this sense that our thoughts and feelings are ‘secondary’ to some other reality. We are entitled to say everything is us, our touch, taste, etc. In fact I can do it myself, nothing is more ‘real’ to me than tasting my own life, but occasionally life interrupts to remind me of something external, something unavoidably more ‘real’ than the creation I have formed around me that is so favoured as a delight to my senses.

    2. Ironically…
      [quote=daydreamer]I think it’s got to matter most that it works…

      …there is an ethical side.[/quote]

      So to ensure homeopathy works (via the placebo effect), a practitioner really should not tell the client that scientific evidence is against it as a treatment, and instead bolster their belief that it is effective, in order to assist the placebo effect taking place? 😉

      1. 🙂
        And thats exactly what you see happening.

        I guess the question is whether mutually exclusive placebos can share the same cultural space.

        Actually I think it’s complexity is shown well in this. For some nothing might work better than to say the scientific establishment thinks it is bunkum. For others (myself?) just say there is science backing it – then Bang! – placebo away.

      2. Placebo?
        As I recall, homeopathy worked in double blind tests, but scientists couldn’t find a reason why it should- so therefore, it was invalid.
        I saw a report where a lab tested homeopathic medicines and proved there was no effective ingredient. However, the tests where done using lasers. As the medicines must be kept away from heat and bright lights, it seemed to me to be a test designed to achieve a null result.

  3. How and why it works IS important…
    Clearly we don’t have to know how and why for the placebo effect to work. But learning the how and why will open the door to being able to use it more broadly or to enhance other medical practices. It works and it’s powerful. Learning more about how and why can only be beneficial.

    Think of it like early vaccine research. Inoculating with cowpox prevented smallpox. Understanding how and why was enormously helpful in developing other vaccines.

  4. Placebo
    I could use a placebo right now, the painkillers I’m taking aren’t as effective as they were earlier in the week. 🙁

    If placebos work, it really is mind over matter — how far can researchers take that without losing their reputations to the swamp of woowoo?

  5. Explaining the Placebo Effect?
    I’ve no idea how placebo works, but I can put forward a guess that at the least complicates things – especially as far as control of treatments go.

    That good old modern miracle find the mirror neuron opens an angle for new ways of viewing the self. If your idea of other people is formed via your bodies understanding of yourself, and vice versa, seeing others feeds back through the mechanism to affect the self then we have a gateway.

    When you have an itch on your arm and you scratch it you alleviate the itch because the neurons represented in the body map around where you scratch fire and the electrical impulses add ‘noise’ to the neurons processing the itching sensation, overwhelming the signal and hence reducing and alleviating it.

    If something similar is happening with mirror neurons, you see someone sad and you feel sad, you see someone happy and you feel happier then how would being told how something should affect you affect your bodies mental map of itself?

    I do not think it could cure cancer, but where something is more to do with data processing, such as with pain, then the electrical signals corresponding with the map of how you expect to feel could interfere with the map of how you actually do feel, perhaps much like scratching an itch. This sounds alot like placebo to me.

    Having said that it is not something I have read, just an idea that popped into my head when thinking about placebo a few months ago. I do not know if there is any evidence for or against that sort of explanation of the placebo effect.

    1. Biofeedback
      I remember that back in the 80s there were a lot of attention centered around biofeedback experiments in popular scientific magazines. Scientists studying how test subjects were able to regulate body functions that are considered involuntary with the proper training and equipment.

      It’s a pity that such studies were abandoned. I believe that could have opened the door to understanding the placebo effect, and a whole lot other potential treatments.

      1. Very interesting. Maybe it
        Very interesting. Maybe it will start back up again. I would find it surprising if no-one researching mirror type neurons or something along that line was looking into this.

        I sympathise with what Greg means when he says

        [quote]perhaps a knee-jerk materialist reaction to something effective arriving simply out of a belief – and thus to be eliminated if at all possible[/quote]


        [quote]should it matter more that it has no ‘scientific’ basis[/quote]

        The placebo effect has itself suck in a position. Are proponents of it just asking for their own belief systems to be brought back (in things like health care) by another name? Sort of like – it’s ok, we know it is the placebo effect, but lets just carry on anyway?

        The placebo effect is ‘infinitely’ variable after all.

        I am still unsure as to whether attempting to align the placebo effect through education is not the most cost effective and moral way to achieve best practice and best cost-effectivness – rather than letting the brains mechanisms rule our societies, we might try to tame them slightly.

        Haven’t we always done that though?

        Right now I think it’s probably best to have your placebo effect aligned with what works best, which takes education. So when new discoveries are made you realign the placebo effect to them. In areas where it is due to the time spent with a doctor, ambiance of the surgery, etc etc then we must use that as well. Proper adult use of the placebo effect to me is respecting it and using it to the advantage of best health care, not using it to get any old thing through the back door.

        Thats if it was a mechanistic systems in the brain though. If it turned out to be something more along the lines of the matrix – us bending reality to our will – then it would be different. At the moment though I see little reason to suspect that. Greg is right to put ‘scientific’ in quotes. The placebo effect is only relegated because of scientific philosophy when being compared to active ingredients. Compared to doing nothing at all manipulating the placebo effect is active and can be beneficial (nocebo by definition isn’t though). The placebo definitely is not un-scientific without the quote marks. It is well mapped out, and well understood in it’s effects as well as what it can typically do and cannot. I say typically to preempt ideas that it occasionally cures all sorts of things. Maybe it does, but I suspect it will be mainly things like the immune system working normally and rarely getting something exceptionally right that does that, maybe…

        I guess we have to wait and see what the placebo effect actually is, but if it comes down to neurons interfering with those in close proximity between the bodies real map and a perceived one (if there is even a strict difference like that, which there may not be) then I for one will not be finding the placebo effect even slightly mysterious. It may just be that neurally there is not much difference between you and ‘imagination’ – the ‘imagined you’ (answering what the placebo effect is may even answer what imagination is?).

  6. Placebo
    In the video, they give various statistics showing the viability of placebos, and in the conclusion, they say that placebos have nothing medically effective in them. I think that they really mean that there is no material thought to have a medical effect. In other words, they literally mean that ‘no thing is contained in the placebo which we think will medically affect the patient’. The placebos themselves are patently medically effective, as the video showed.
    To me, if you cannot explain the phenomena of the world using materialism, then materialism is an ineffective paradigm for explaining worldly phenomena. To really arrive at a rational understanding of such phenomena, we need a new paradigm on which to build the foundation of science.

    1. If i can guess at ways the
      If i can guess at ways the placebo effect can work purely materially, just like eye’s do, ears do etc then you can bet people that know more can. The thing with the placebo is that the pill you are selling is not what does the work, the culture, presentation, and individual are – so what are you really selling? Placebo’s do do something effective, but bare in mind that aspirin and paracetamol use the placebo effect as well. So do anti-depressants. Normal medicine is placebo+medicine, placebo is placebo+nothing. Which do you want?

      1. Neither

        I want more research so we can find a way to attain something like discipline+placebo. That way we can leave the nasty side-effects of placebo+medicine out, and on the way downsize the obscene earnings of the pharmaceutical industry —who, like you yourself said, are already profiting from the patient’s subjective trust on the medicine.

        There’s something there that seems to point out to something more than just "fooling yourself".

        Take for instance the Tibetan practice of tummo. Now this is a mental & physical discipline that allows the practitioners to endure extremely low temperatures.

        One can look at this picture and think "well, that guy is obviously just practicing a bit of auto-suggestion, and fooling himself that he doesn’t feel any coldness".

        But can you fool your toes NOT to suffer frost-bite?

        And if this practice does allow you to increase your body temperature at will… where does the energy come from?

  7. Things are not always what they seem
    I remember reading once of a chemical poison that was being laboratory tested to determine the lethal dose factor. The testing scientist had a wife who insisted that homeopathic treatments were effective, which was something he thought was bunkum.

    Just out of interest, he concocted a homeopathic dose of his poison chemical to the point where no poison was left in it and found to his amazement that his victim rabbits died almost instantly when it was administered to them, whereas those who had received what was considered probably a lethal dose were still happily hopping around several hours later.

    I don’t know if he ever admitted this to his wife or not!

    Regards, Kathrinn

      1. No, sorry daydreamer
        No, sorry, I don’t – it was many years ago and I covertly read the article while waiting for treatment at the chiropracters (I don’t buy magazines). I was interested at the time, though, as we then owned a mango plantation and were being told by all and sundry that we simply had to use all these dreadful LD50 chemicals(that’s lethal dose 50% strength, I think)) or all our fruit would turn black and fall off the trees. We didn’t use them, and nothing disastrous happened!!

        Regards, Kathrinn

  8. Perhaps the placebo effect is
    Perhaps the placebo effect is explained as our mind’s interaction with the material world. Just as the double slit experiment in physics shows observation of matter affects it nature – light becomes either a wave or a particle depending on the observation, it is possible all matter is dependent upon the conscious observation/awareness of it. Eastern philosophy conceives of a supreme consciousness that permeates the universe, a similar concept in the west is God. And we, our souls so to speak are aspects of this supreme consciousness that is immutable and transcends physical matter, therefore immortal – so the reasoning goes. Theoretically our conscious mind then limits and blocks our access to this universal consciousness allowing access to it only through the transition of death, training in meditation, or spontaneous experience. The point being, at an unconscious level our thoughts, beliefs, emotions can influence matter through this universal transcendent mind/consciousness – this possibly explaining things such as winning streaks in such random matters as gambling for example, synchronicities, etc… It is a fact our awareness of physical reality occurs solely within our mind – a good discussion of this is the book titled, “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat” as well as Robert Lanza’s “Biocentrism” theories.

    It is also a fact our mental and emotional state affects our hormonal reactions and subsequently our physical health – our beliefs and thoughts can make us sick. Therefore it is equally likely our thoughts and beliefs can make us well – as any doctor will attest to the fact a patient’s outlook (they are a fighter or they have a great attitude) affects their recovery. Even terminal patients often remain alive until a delayed loved one arrives to say their farewell and only then passing into death. Skeptics automatically reject anything outside their belief system or their paradigm, and yet physicists are much like economists – can’t seem to agree; their beliefs based on theories, well researched but not totally proven. Therefore the placebo effect may be in reality one more manifestations of supernatural reality – reality beyond the physical world and it traditional laws, yet in compliance with the new quantum laws. A reality that transcends the Brain based existence of the mind, and puts the mind or consciousness as eternal, transcendent, spiritual with the brain acting only as a receiver like a television receiving the programming signals. The placebo affect may be the material manifestation of our unconscious mind communicating with our true mind, our supreme consciousness aka our soul and it influence on the physical and material world.

    1. That is definitely one
      That is definitely one construct that is internally consistent. It would be a nice thought if that was what was going on.

      Does anyone know of any examples where the placebo effect can be seen to transcend the boundary of the body. A good way to test whether it is a perception and information processing phenomena, or whether it is a material manipulation phenomena might be to see if it can do more than the information processing hypothesis might predict.

      – I mean; I see no reason to favor the placebo effect if we are just talking about how mood effects health. There is plenty of available documentation relating good long term mental health to good long term physical health. There is no reason to see the placebo effect as especially mysterious as a phenomena when compared to ‘normal’ mind function. I.e I don’t see that it adds anything as an independent phenomena to things like the soul etc (or any idea that states that consciousness is external to the physicality of the brain and not an (emerging/controlling) phenomena within it).

      I.e if the apparent mysterious affect of the placebo effect on the physical matter of the body is evidence of something beyond ‘natural’, then general moods should be as well. It is still part of the general hypothesis of the soul, rather than requiring that it be an independent component relating to it – philosophically there are not enough separate components to claim it a separate idea, or separate component of an idea just based on that.

      Seeing the placebo effect alter physical matter outside of what information processing might affect would help show it was something else.

      1. 3rd party
        As far as I know, placebo effects and the inverse (psychosomatic illnesses and such) are not transferred to another person. In other words, it makes a difference whether the patient believes that the medication is effective, but not whether the patient’s mother believes it.

  9. To elaborate this a bit
    To elaborate this a bit further let’s consider so called “radionics” machines which are perhaps another example of the placebo effect. In order for a radionics machine to “work” it has to be carefully crafted. Many of them use electronics schematics as part of the ritual. The schematics are drawn or printed out so that the “circuit” is correct. Sometimes a fabricator will even use a dial knob in the form of a piece of paper with hole drilled in it and pivoting on the axis of a needle hovering above a schematically drawn potentiometer for instance.
    A common observation is that the hand drawn schematics, which are more prone to human error, will not function if a “mistake” is made in tracing out the circuitry. If there is a an electrical short, a resistor is left out, or whatever the machine does not perform the intended work. There is a great little book called “Mind Machines You Can Build” that goes into this in detail citing quite a few examples from the colorful history of radionics devices.

    I have built machines myself that were sort of a hybrid of these devices – a combination of electrically stimulated orgonite by way of mobius wrapped hookup wire, crystals, and other goodies.
    You can’t just throw these things together casually. There must be some “logic” to what you intend. If there is not the devices don’t have a high chance of bringing about desired outcomes.

    I got a whole new insight into this sort of thing when I was privileged to interact with the poltergeist that infamously haunted the family ranch. This story has been related in detail on this forum already, so I won’t go into that anymore. To me though the most fascinating physical manipulations of this poor old spirit involved the modern electronics devices he would fool around with. He was maddeningly adept at turning on and off the television set in the main living room where he was most often sighted. He could also trip the house alarm system. He was also able to simultaneously turn on every single light throughout the large house which feat completely baffle the electrician who was called in in the early days before we figured out what was really going on.
    All of this was his way of getting attention when he got lonely, and since the ranch house was mostly unoccupied for long stretches he apparently got lonely a lot because he would at least once a week trip the house alarm necessitating the ranch foreman to come from his nearby residence at the other side of the pond and reset the alarm. All the house lights would also have been turned on, and the television set would be on with the volume turned up. As soon as the ranch foreman entered the living room the spirit would demonstrate his facility with the TV by turning it on and off and jacking with the volume.
    This spirit had been sighted by many people at various times over two decades, and he was always decribed as a “civil war soldier” with belt saber at this side and appropriate military dress. Aside from the wonder of his elctronics manipulations in general there was a secondary amazement that someone from the mid 19th century could figure out modern electronics. This was particularly galling to the ranch foreman who could get barely get the two remote television system to function properly himself.

    Are this character’s hijinks an example of radionics? Did he only require a schematic of the circuitry to make the circuitry “work?” If he is sending energy through the circuitry how does he know where to send it? It really took this whole question of “intent” to another level for me.

    1. Mind over Matter
      To me the placebo effect is clear evidence of mind over matter, those sad scientists may not want to accept anything that they can’t measure but that’s their problem. As for homeopathic ‘solutions’, again diluting doesn’t alter the applied specific structure of water. Those scientists should take a look at Prof Moto’s work and proof it’s all nonsense by living on the destructured water as against the ‘love’ water. Cowards as they are they’d likely use plants but that’s ok, maybe they should add magnetron water to the test and watch the difference as one plant grows and the other withers.. And all this from what these science bobo’s declare is basicly the same water…no it’s not… Interesting side note to this simple test is the fact that the placebo effect is limited, that is the plant mind-field is likely far too weak.

  10. It is all just information
    Honestly, I just don’t get what all the fuss is about. Isn’t it dead obvious? What is a ‘medicine’? It is chemical, it is physical, it is thus only information, a geometric message that is delivered by various means to other chemical/physical information systems in the body, and by nature of its geometry, it communicates an instruction to induce the body to take some action. Note the italics: there are no medicines or treatments that ‘treat’ or ‘cure’ disease, only medicines and treatments that induce the bio-organism to treat and cure itself. It’s all bloody leeches when you get right down to it 😉

    So what is a placebo? It is information. It is information injected into the mind which then ‘informs’ the bio-organism to take some action. And we know the mind can communicate with the body, otherwise how would I move my corporeal fingers to type this message? So pure ‘idea’ can talk to the body, and medicine can also talk to the body, why is it so amazing then that both can deliver the same information?

    So yoga, even just the trust in the westernized 19th Century reinvented India Nationalism Movement ‘yoga’, can, through posture, through pressure, perhaps even only through idea, can induce healing. The healing is nonetheless real, and, and this is important, it is no less ‘real’ than the medical method of talking to the body — it is nonsense to say any one language is ‘better’ than another, although some may be more expedient at expressing some ideas than others.

    This has some promising corollaries. For example: Depression and frustration can create changes in the brain that will result in the formation of chemicals that will block the dopamine receptors thereby preventing ‘happiness’ even when the frustsration is alleviated. Thus we see pure behaviour can cause a physical medical condition. Current therapies use drug-information to induce seratonin receptors to accept dopamine but other med research results tell us that all biological chemical synthesis processes are symmetric, they all flow both ways, thus the formation of the dopamine blocker could be reversed, if only we could find the right information, chemical, ideological … or musical. Humans do seem to use music as a form of self-medication; the Chinese character ‘Yao’ implies that medicine is considered a form of music, and not the other way around.

    1. And the next great leap
      And the next great leap forward will require that people emotionally allow these ideas residence in their minds for the therapeutic effects to take place. An intellectual appreciation of these realities doesn’t cut it. As with yoga the connections have to be made firsthand, neurologically for the “obvious” to become truly apparent. How do you get yourself to believe enough in these possibilities for them to actually take hold? How do you relax enough to allow the two way back and forth between causality from both the receptor and the transmitter so that the two become one and the same?

      The loosening up of belief systems is very, very difficult for most people. It may not be such a trick for people such as hang around TDG, but it it a real rubicon crossing for most people, and that is an especially apt metaphor here because most people are inherently afraid of such ideas. They fear that when “reason sleeps, monsters awake” – that allowing these concepts in to their mental space is toying with insanity from whence they might not return, and yet there really has to be an embracing for these ideas to have effect. It is a supreme act of imagination.

      1. I’m not sure about that
        I’m not sure about that emlong. Freedom of belief might allow greater freedom of placebo, but I’m not sure ‘freer’ belief results in stronger placebo – just different.

        So in Islamic societies placebo response will be based around different ideas, but I suspect the strength will be similar to that in secular countries, and that the same will be seen within diverse groups within countries and even within cultures (protestant/catholic, shia/sunni, indian/western astrology etc, atheist/born again), the same is true for normal science as well. Knowing there is a better drug not currently payed for by your health provider probably provides some nocebo.

        Of course, I am talking without evidence to back it up, so it is only what I suspect.

    2. I agree completely – to a
      I agree completely – to a point, that the placebo affect is information exchange…but may be more also. Western medicine primarily treats the effect or symptoms and rarely addresses the cause of disease. It is excellent at treating physical trauma, but less so at disease such as cancer, heart disease, high blood pressure, etc… Even infections that are successfully treated with antibiotics only treat the cause and do not address the original weakness or breakdown in the body’s defenses that allowed the virus or bacteria’s activity in the first place. Edgar Cayce in his readings went in depth into the interactions between the bodily systems, their communication (information exchange as you put it) and his “treatments” were always directed at restoring normal functioning of the body’s systems with the intent of removing the cause of the disease, the result often that symptoms and the disease disappeared. That provides a nice material or physical based aka information exchange explanation of the placebo effect and reality but neglects the possible other half of the explanation – that the placebo effect is one more piece of the puzzle that might explain or provide a unified theory of both a physical and non-physical/supernatural explanation to reality. Cayce for example also believed in the soul or “Superconsiousness” ie supreme consciousness/God. His readings stated every cell, every molecule has consciousness, not like our conscious mind per se, but rather a purpose that is part of this supreme consciousness – and that the information gleaned during his readings was communication with this consciousness, which always occurred at a distance much like the inexplicable “spooky action at a distance” from quantum mechanics.

      So in my prior post above I suggest and attempt to bridge the physical and nonphysical explanations for the placebo effect and reality not for the intent of persuasion, but rather for discussion and (my) search for a larger truth. The placebo effect in itself is not proof mind influences matter beyond normal physical reactions or information exchange; however its mystery is one more piece of evidence suggesting mind may be independent, transcendent and influential of physical matter. I try to bridge such broad phenomena as the placebo effect, double slit experiment, NDE as analyzed in Pim Van Lommel’s book Consciousness Beyond Life, Robert Lanza’s Biocentrism theories, DMT’s suggested retuning of the brain as a receiver of a larger reality, Cayce’s evidential accuracy in acquiring information at a distance ala remote viewing – all of which tend to imply a supreme consciousness of which we all are part of, that is immutable and is capable of exerting influence on the physical third dimensional reality. I believe on an immediate and superficial level this influence is evidenced by winning streaks, intuition, synchronicities, and yes possibly the placebo effect. Under hypnosis supposedly blisters form when suggested an object is hot that is not but is touched to the skin – this may be merely information exchange, or something more. The problem with much of science and skeptics is their specialization – taking any of these phenomena independently they are easily dismissible, yet taken together they imply a larger reality than traditional science has so far accepted.

      1. As my laser physicist friend
        As my laser physicist friend Prof.Bill Harter says, “Everything is information.” That includes ideology and other belief systems. Cayce was a strict christian, yet when under trance that all fell away. There is a supermind hovering over these other petty considerations. Ultimately, they have no bearing on it.

  11. Mumby Jumbo

    This is related but not wholly. Mumby is part of the new vanguard trying to rescusitate “energy medicine” and “black box” devices. I am reading the book he is holding up in the video. It is interesting from two standpoints – the devices themselves are fascinating but equally eye opening are his accounts of fraud on the part of mainstream medicine in evaluating the efficacy of the devices. Even more startling are the accounts of stodgy old pillars of mainstream “societies” of the early 20th century daring to endorse the devices amid howls of derison from their colleagues. You would never see anyone nowadays from such establishment groups daring to even talk about these things such is the taboo, but in those days there was still enough ethical backbone that a few emminent men could dare follow their conscience as uninterested observers and assessors.
    This sort of medicine is mainly premised on the idea that there are radiations or emanations that our instruments still have not accounted for but which are being measured by the black boxes, so they are not inherently illogical or unreasonable.

    It is also possible that placebo medicine is just a matter of emanations not yet accounted for because our measuring devices are insufficient. If with proper prompting or tricking the human body can output or simulate the quinine vibration which then attacks malarial bacteria then the body is just being made the “black box.”

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