Everyone’s heard the word, right? Not the band, the medical term. Something like this: placebos are used in clinical trials. Someone puts out an ad for easy money, a study of this and that. A bunch of
loosers willing subjects show up. They are given pills for some condition. Half of them are fooled into thinking they’re taking medicine when in fact, what they’re swallowing is placebo, an empty decoy. Measurements are then taken and results compared, drug vs placebo. When the drug wins, a pharmaceutical company gets rich. If it looses, a pharmaceutical company most likely still gets rich after someone has falsified test results.
But for most people, that seems to be as far as the term will go. It remains an abstract clinical notion and at best makes them wonder whether, if placed in such a study environment, they would be fooled themselves by a placebo. We all feel like we know better.
Of course, mainstream modern medicine being what it is, very little attention is ever paid to the why’s and how’s. Our society endorses a ostrich-like attitude when it comes to health – or the lack thereof. Safely stick your head in the sand until you are sick, then keep your head in the sand and we’ll feed you powerful drugs via the most convenient body opening to treat your symptoms. Hopefully they go away. But safely keep your head in the sand.
One of the most striking demonstrations of this phenomena is a simple visit to any North American pharmacy, or drugstore. Don’t expect to find medicines in the front aisle, they are hidden towards the back. Instead, the front is filled with wonderful accessories to enhance your time in the sand – bags of chips, cans of Coke, cookies, ice cream and entire counters full of candy and chocolate bars, not to mention cigarettes. The one place that should be selling and teaching health is in fact pushing the very things that will in time make you need to visit the medicine aisle.
But back to the placebo effect. Some marginal literature admits that the effect is an intrinsic part of any healing process. It has been known by every ancient culture for as long as there has been knowledge that the mind and body are inseparable. If one is healthy, the other follows. If one flounders, both will. When a patient takes medicine, it is likely that a placebo effect contributes to the healing to some degree, adding to the drugs and treatment’s effectiveness by convincing the mind that relief is on the way.
The pharmaceutical industry knows that very well and I personally believe that half the drugs they sell us for a hefty price are actually placebos to some degree. Think about it. It’s technically almost impossible that given the state of our medical science we would still be fighting so many incurable, misunderstood or just nagging deceases but have effective drugs for all of them. If we can have a drug, we should have a cure. It’s much more probable that if there is no current cure, there isn’t a drug either and the pill is nothing but the good old mind decoy.
Why not, then, give the placebo a much more important role in our approach to health, taking it away from the pharmaceutical companies? Why not diminish the power of drugs in our belief system and increase that of our own mind, even if we have to trick it? In that light, the placebo might very well be the greatest medicine that was ever invented.
It can never be marketed or owned by a single pharmaceutical giant, nor sold for a fortune nor even advertised on subway panels. I has to remain elusive and ambiguous. It cannot destroy the pharmaceutical industry completely because it relies on it to exist. And yet, it is quite possible that any remedy we believe in strongly might be just about as potent as one that is actually clinically proven to work.
For that to happen, medicine would have to accept that it knows nothing and is still, in our 21st century, a science of trial and error, failure and ignorance. It would have to accept that the main actor in the drama of our diseases is our mind/body cooperation. That people must be given hope in order to heal and that society must stop advertising the many horrors of our lives as unavoidable and trendy. Medicine would have to take on a preventive role rather than fixing by patching.
We would have to stop obsessing with dissecting everything we hold true then false in cyclic fashion, like the efficiency of our ritual vitamins, the pertinence of exercise, the ideal body weight for the modern era or the supreme diet that kills all others. If the placebo rules, make sure none of the above are harmful and then let us believe they just all work.
I eat broccoli, he takes vitamin C, she chooses to eat a lot of fruits, they run 5 times a week, she wears only natural fibers, they use homeopathic remedies, he meditates, I run when I feel like it… What do we all have in common? We all believe that we know what is best for us and try and stick to it. From a scientific point of view, we might be wrong, we might not. But the new science suggests that we all are right. The placebo effect is in action. The mind believes and feeds that belief to our body. It’s not a lie, it’s only an opinion. But if it’s strong enough, it rules. Placebo becomes health.
So who will be the new placebo merchants? It can’t be the main pharmaceutical companies. I think they are mostly evil and profit-obsessed. It can’t yet be the so-called health brands and stores because even these are suspected of racket and most of their claims cannot currently be verified by the mainstream science.
I believe that to stand a chance, placebo merchants will have to emerge from the ashes of long buried mysticism and mingle with medicine in a new way, not at the factory level but rather inside the doctor’s office, one on one, shaman-like. That’s right, placebo could be our very doctor’s new weapon of choice, the secret weapon brought into the light and freely used, the wild-card of healing that will only work if you believe in it.
First consequence: your family doctor would become an agnostic priest and teach you faith in yourself. Second consequence: that same family doctor would have to double as a psychologist and find out from your own talk what makes you tick. Third: he or she would then prescribe a heavy dose of paragliding, broccoli, mint tea, boerewors, clay masks, herbal soaps, scuba diving, drawing, nectarines, aspirin, shopping, fiber, charity, anchovies, a massage, red wine, yoga, ginger, nuts, tennis, Peter Sellers movies or anything else that ranks at the top of your own hit-parade. Three times a day.
He or she would scribble it on a tiny piece of paper that you would take home, not necessarily to be redeemed at a pharmacy and possibly to simply be stared at daily for months, your eyes flinching to decode the physician’s awful writing, your mind racing to find practical ways of following the prescription and your heart knowing that this actually could work if you just trust yourself.
But before anything else, the new placebo merchants would be required to make a statement: "Stand over there. Look over here. Close the left eye with your left hand. Listen to me carefully: My prescription is a guide. I can’t cure you. Only you can."