Placebo is a Myth
The bane of modern medicine, the placebo effect is something that embarrasses most of the medical fraternity. They try to work around it, they look down upon it, they scoff at systems that they think work primarily because of the placebo effect. Without placebo, how would they approve drugs, even?
For the uninitiated, placebo (plə-see-boh; Latin placēbō, “I shall please” from placeō, “I please”) is a simulated drug. The idea developed when an army nurse injected distilled water into a suffering soldier, because they had run out of morphine and he was in tremendous pain, begging for relief. Miraculously, the pain subsided. The anesthetist she was assisting – Henry Beecher, concluded that healing might be possible just through faith alone, and this eventually brought about a new way of testing drugs.
When a pharmaceutical company now wants to release a new drug in the market, it has to compare itself to a placebo pill. An equal number of patients are given the placebo and the drug respectively, and only if the drug heals more patients than the placebo, can it be approved. The fact that even dummy capsules can kick-start the body’s recovery engine is a problem for drug developers to overcome, rather than a phenomenon that can guide doctors toward a better understanding of the healing process and how to drive it most effectively.
Think about it – when a patient can get cured with just a fake pill that will affect his system minimally, if at all, why would we want to push strong chemicals down his throat – chemicals that may or may not heal him, but will definitely cause dangerous and long lasting side effects? So many times doctors prescribe a pill to heal the patient, and another pill to combat the side effects of the first pill.
But it isn’t just that. The idea of placebo itself goes against basic scientific principles. Newton’s first law states that an unbalanced force is required to combat inertia. The third law states that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. And here, the whole idea of placebo is that ‘nothing’ cures something. How is that even possible, scientifically? Clearly there is something missing.
To any genuine scientific mind, seeing a patient get cured without medicine would be proof that there are factors involved in healing that haven’t been understood. One would then have spent the next few years, or more, trying to find out exactly what it is then, if not pills and surgery, that is really causing the healing. Instead, they did exactly what a blind religious fanatic does – they called it ‘unscientific’ (read blasphemous), made a problem out of it and tried beating it through stronger medicines.
As a result, modern medicine still remains hit and miss. People who receive the right medicine or the perfect surgery, remain unhealed and sometimes die. Just like the placebo effect heals people, the nocebo effect keeps them sick and kills them, but nobody really cares, because it is ‘unscientific’. They have no clue what really brings about a healing, because they’ve spent decades investing in the wrong direction. Placebo is a label that was applied without any scientific research. Science has just assumed that chemicals and surgeries are the only way a human body can ever get better. It is a belief system that is so strong, that for years doctors believed that healing brought about through ‘placebo’ wasn’t even real, and that it would eventually recur. Several recent studies show they were wrong. If a doctor allows blind beliefs to guide his judgement, is he being scientific?
Where is the science, here? Placebo is known to bring about as much as 80% of healing. Is it all really ‘just in the mind’? If we jump to this conclusion without proper investigation, how is it even remotely scientific?
Has it ever really been about healing? Because if modern medicine WAS really about healing people, the placebo effect could never have been left un-investigated. If the placebo effect is known to heal people – which it is, then how is it that no studies have been done to understand the circumstances in which placebo is more -and less- effective? Why would you want to give a patient strong drugs with severe side effects if an injection of distilled water could cure him? When you look really deeply it starts to dawn upon you – it hasn’t been about the healing, it hasn’t been about the science. It has been about making money, it has been about defending belief systems.
Healing through placebo is not unscientific. The understanding of placebo is.
Here’s an interesting video. It was a joy to see a doctor start to think along these lines.
Also, this article makes for an interesting read.