Some years ago while researching cases where patients spontaneously recovered from cancer — an occurrence that remains unexplained — I hit upon a striking fact. There is no consistent thing that such patients do, no single technique drug, or alternative therapy. Some prayed, some became Buddhists, some turned to coffee enemas or grape juice. There was no consistency at all, and no scientific evidence that a magical substance had been found.
But those who recovered against all odds did have one thing in common. At a certain point people who are inexplicably cured know that they are going to recover. Their doubts and fears lift. With great conviction they realize that they are no longer in danger. (To be clear, we are talking about a strong correlation, not a fact that applies to everyone.)

This certainty is like becoming your own placebo. What would that mean?
Placebo is Latin for “I shall please.” Which is a good way of describing how the placebo effect works. A doctor offers a patient a powerful drug with the assurance that it will relieve the patient’s symptoms. (The effect isn’t limited to drugs, however, which is important to remember: anything you believe in can act as a placebo), and the patient, as promised, gets relief. But in reality the doctor has prescribed a harmless, inert substance like a sugar pill. Where did the patient’s relief come from?
It came from the mind telling the body to get well. To do that, the mind must be convinced that healing is about to occur. The big problem with the placebo effect, which is known to operate in 30% of cases on average, is that the first step is deception. The doctor is misleading the patient, and that has proven to be an enormous roadblock. No ethical physician would regularly deny best care to a patient, offering innocuous substitutes instead, even though in some cases (such as mild to moderate depression) some studies show that drugs are likely to be no more effective than a placebo. This means, by the way, that the unpredictability of the placebo effect is also shared by drugs. The notion that pharmaceuticals act the same way for all patients is an enormous myth.
I’ve simplified this presentation to ask the most important question: Can you be your own placebo without using deception? If you give yourself a sugar pill, you know in advance that it offers no relief. Is that the end of it?
By no means. Mind-body medicine depends on freeing the mind from its doubts so that people can attain wellness by knowing more about the mind-body connection, not less. Instead of using deception, which keeps the patient in the dark, we need healing based on more awareness — more light — in the patient’s life.
To be your own placebo is the same as freeing up the healing power of the mind-body connection. Instead of wondering how 30% of patients benefit from the placebo effect, we need to shift our focus and ask about the 70% who don’t. Mind-body medicine will reach its full potential only when the following holds true:
— The mind contributes to getting well.
— The mind doesn’t contribute to getting sick.
— The body is in constant communication with the mind.
— This communication benefits both the physical and mental aspects of being well.
That’s the vision we need. In my net post I’ll discuss how each of these requirements can be fulfilled.
(To be cont.)
Published in the San Francisco Chronicle
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