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?

“Things that are totally constructed by human beings, I have a hard time taking seriously.”

From theoretical physicist Janna Levin during an episode of On Being:

“I will often look at what people think is very important and not identify with what they think is very important… I have a hard time becoming obsessed with internal social norms – how you’re supposed to dress or wear your tie.  For me it’s so absurd, because it’s so small, and it’s this funny thing that this one species is acting out on this tiny planet in this huge vast cosmos. So I think it’s hard for me to participate in certain values that other people have… If I try to look at that closely, the split is – Things that are totally constructed by human beings, I have a hard time taking seriously.  And things that seem to be natural phenomena that happen universally, I take more seriously…. It doesn’t mean that I’m dismissing things as unimportant either.  I take very seriously what’s going on in the world right now, and I’m really pained by what’s going on in the world.  But my perspective is to look at it as animals acting out ruthless instincts and unable to control themselves, and other people think they’re being heady and intellectual.”

This is nonsense parading itself as scientific wisdom.  Questions:

1.  Isn’t science – exactly like fashion – just “this funny thing that this one species is acting out on this tiny planet in this huge vast cosmos”?  If fashion is small, then isn’t science small too?

2.  Isn’t it obviously true that people derive more joy from fashion than from theoretical physics?  Is it wrong that a person would care more about how they present themselves to the world than about whether the universe is finite or infinite?

3. Isn’t Janna Levin herself just an animal “acting out ruthless instincts”?  If that’s what she thinks that humans are, then how is she exempt from this description?  If she isn’t exempt, then how can she claim that science puts her in a privileged position to make judgments about truth and meaning?

4.  Isn’t science itself something “totally constructed by human beings”?


It’s no surprise that Janna Levin believes that Janna Levin’s interests are more important than other people’s interests. What’s wrong with this is that she’s using Science to belittle other people’s values.  Science doesn’t value.  From a scientific POV, Janna Levin’s worries about the finite/infinite universe are ridiculously small.

“Neuroscience will become something that is apprehensible to ordinary people”

So says the recently deceased Sherwin Nuland in an episode of On Being.

He says that, initially, the general public turned away from genetics.  But “bit by bit people began to understand DNA.”

I’m not sure how well most people understand DNA.  I presume most people have some vague understanding that DNA is somehow linked to all that stuff we inherit from our parents.  But how many people understand the DNA codes for proteins?  Or that it consists of a paired code?  Or even that it resides in the nucleus of our cells?

Neuroscience seems even more difficult to understand on an intuitive level.  Will we ever understand how our brains work?  Even if we believe – rationally – that our everyday experiences have a basis in the biology of our brains, won’t the connection between the two remain inscrutable?  Even for those of us who can draw realistic pictures of the human brain and rattle of the names of multiple neurotransmitters, won’t it always seem magical to be alive and conscious?