Last week we discussed the placebo effect, and saw how mere belief that you are being treated can improve your chances of recovery from an illness, likely by causing your brain to stimulate the appropriate glands to release hormones to control the immune system.
Alternative medicine providers from witch doctors and shamen through to herbalists and homeopaths use this mechanism, usually unwittingly, to help other people. That is to say, their actions produce a change in the workings of the immune system of people who aren’t even themselves.
In fact, they do a better job of it than the person they treat was doing on their own.
Don’t let’s get carried away here though. They only do a bit of a better job. Pretty much all of their treatments are no better than a properly administered sham alternative. Only some people are helped, only some of the time. Pain and otherwise subjectively measured things are influenced more than more concrete objective measures. Nobody has ever regrown an amputated limb through a placebo treatment.
But still, given those limits, placebo-treatment results are impressive. Certainly it’s useful to be able to understand how they work and be in a position to produce some these effects in your friends.
Prediction, Anticipation, Suggestion
It’s interesting to note that one of the major placebo effects can be produced by classical conditioning. If you, for example, give a patient an injection of opiates each day, the level of endorphins in their brains increase as a result of the drug. After you have done this for a while, if you secretly replace the opiate with plain saline solution, the level of endorphins still increases.
The key here is that opiate injections don’t directly cause an increase in endorphin levels in your brain. The opiates latch onto cell receptors, which cause reactions in the cells, which cause other molecular neurotransmitters to be released, which cause yet more cells to react. A complex cascade of action and reaction flows through the brain until it eventually reaches the cells which release the endorphins.
Of course, many of the major ‘inputs’ to this process come directly from feedback loops within the brain itself. In fact most neurons aren’t sense neurons, aren’t even directly connected to sense neurons. Most of the circuits in your brain are connected only to other brain circuits.
This sets up your brain perfectly to fall for a self fulfilling prophecy. Since your neurons are constantly trying to predict the future, and they are all linked in a big spaghetti pile of feedback loops, the very expectation of some signal, the anticipation of it can bring that signal about.
So when the sham opiate injection is administered, many of the neural cells in this jumbled mess of connections are receiving similar inputs to the half dozen times in which they received this injection before. It looks the same, you’re in the same place, the same time of day, the same mood, you feel that same pin-prick, the flow of liquid through the syringe, a huge number of the signals to the neurons of your brain are near-as-damnit the same as during the genuine injection. Is it any wonder that the cells at the end of this chain, those that actually release the endorphins, end up behaving in the same way?
Belief, then, can cause the brain to act differently. If you believe you’re likely to feel less pain, your pain-sensing circuits will likely act accordingly. If you think you’ll start to feel healthier, you are more likely to do so. If you believe your immune system will gain a boost, it may well find an increase in the production of white cells. If you believe your T-Cells will concentrate in a particular area of your body, that they may be more efficiently directed to the site of an injury, then exactly the appropriate signals can be produced by your brain.
The key, then, to using these effects to help others, to help them feel relaxed, happy, pain-free, fill their mind with endorphins, is to generate the expectation and belief that this is exactly what will happen.
Alternative medical practitioners generally do this through a complicated story about the origins of their art, the supposed mechanisms of the effects of the treatment, through making a patient feel comfortable and relaxed, giving them care and lots of attention. Convincing them that someone is helping.
The more the practitioner can make the patient anticipate and predict that they will feel better, that their immune system will help them get better, the more healthy they are likely to feel.
Modern medical ethics forbids outright lying to a patient. A doctor can’t prescribe a sugar pill and claim it’s a miraculous cure that will stop your symptoms forever within a week. However a homeopath suffers no such restriction, if only because they, in general, swallow their own line. The practitioners themselves believe their art is real, which makes their act for the patients real, reinforcing the sense that something is being done, the patient’s prediction that they will get better, or at the very least feel better.
Likewise, making up weird stories about chi energy or chakra points or water memory or the healing power of crystals isn’t likely to be helpful when coming from a skeptic.
This story though, the true story of how the placebo effect works through expectation and suggestion and through attempting to put your brain into a state in which it will found a self-fulfilling-prophecy, this story can be explained. It can empower someone to take control of their own treatment.
How do you put a person’s brain into a state in which it predicts getting better? By having them imagine what it would be like to feel better. Encourage them to visualize it strongly, to see it in their minds, to feel it in their body. The longer, and more powerfully, you can encourage someone to pretend to feel better, the more their brain will expect to feel better.
Furthermore, this can be done whether you explain how it works or not. Just by encouraging someone to fantasize about being healthy, about achieving their goals, you can help that happen through the power of Placebo. Explaining how this is supposed to help, explaining the truth of the treatment, won’t alter it’s effect on the subject’s prediction at all.
In the guided lucid dream presented next week you’ll spend time using this placebo effect, the power of generating expectation, to generate the expectation that you’ll use that power more.
You’ll dream what it is like to feel fitter, stronger, more energetic and happier. You’ll dream what it’s like to encourage others to spend time imagining the same, training your mind to help improve your own health and well-being, and the health and well-being of those around you.