The placebo is “unlocking your brain’s own pharmacy”

An interesting interview with Harvard social psychologist Ellen Langer by Krista Tippett.

What is the ideal drug?  The placebo.  It doesn’t introduce any foreign substances into your body.  It has wide-ranging power to cure all sorts of ills.  No known side effects.  But the whole edifice of clinical trials is built on identifying and ignoring the placebo effect, as if it’s somehow “fake.”  It’s not fake at all.

A few other thoughts:

1. I love the simplicity of her approach.  She defines mindfulness as “the simple process of actively noticing new things.”  That’s easy for me to understand.  There are lots of tasks that I do that are completely mindlessly — at work, at home, at play — and I definitely feel more engaged when I am in a mindful state, as she defines it.

2. She claims that you can do meditation mindlessly.  And she defines the goal of meditation as “post-meditative mindfulness.”

3.  An ongoing theme of this blog is the impossibility of knowing.  So I really liked this quote: “Universal uncertainty is an awareness:’I don’t know, you don’t know, in some sense we really can’t know.’” 

4.  How much of science is conducted mindfully?

“The laws of nature don’t have exceptions.”

Krista Tippett and physicist Leonard Mlodinow tie themselves up in knots trying to bridge the gap between free will and physical determinism.  This is a tired topic, but it’s useful to see just how muddled the thinking is, even for someone as smart and thoughtful as Mlodinow is:

1.  Tippett refers to the “scientific observation that free will is an illusion.”  And Mlodinow implies that Laplacian determinism is a scientific theory.  But I think it’s more appropriate to think of determinism as a key assumption of the physical sciences.  In fact, it may even be part of what makes a scientist a scientist.  A scientist is one who tries to explain physical phenomena in terms of other physical phenomena.  He/she observes something about the physical world, and then tries to explain it as a result of something else in the physical world. So it’s not really a theory or an observation.  

2.  Mlodinow seems to want to claim the mantle of Laplace.  But he’s not really a Laplacian determinist.  If he was, then how could he hold up his father as an example of a Holocaust hero.  How is his father any better than Hitler, if both of them are just a bunch of subatomic particles bouncing around as they were predestined to do at the Big Bang?  He knows that Laplacian determinism is really just a thought experiment, an assumption, and that it has no relevance to our lives.  In the end, he admits this: “Yes, I definitely think that my decisions matter.”  How could he not?  How could any of us not?

3.  In the end, he wants science to be spiritual.  And he realizes – while he strives to be rational – it’s not entirely possible.  “I had an insight that I have beliefs that are not scientifically-based, too, and I believe them. “