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?

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Would we be healthier if our doctors lied to us?

At Slate, the famous memory researcher Elizabeth Loftus proposes that implanting false memories could change our behavior for the better:

AG: Could false memories be used for therapeutic purposes—like reducing alcohol consumption?  EL: Absolutely, yes. I’ve had people say to me, do you think you could cure all kinds of problems with the false-memory technique? I hope other people will give it a try.

It’s hard to imagine how this would be implemented:  If somebody signs off on having a false memory implanted, then won’t it be harder for them to accept that memory as factual?

It’s analogous to the problem of how to harness the power of the placebo effect.  Doctors could be instructed to try a placebo before a “real” treatment, in cases where the life of the patient is not at stake and the potential benefits outweigh the costs.  But the patient would have to sign off on this, presumably  reducing the effectiveness.  Maybe  health insurers could offer patients the option of “pre-clearing” the use of placebos (with a lower premium?)

It seems extremely inefficient that our whole system of Western medicine forbids providers from harnessing one of the most powerful natural healing mechanisms.

But allowing providers to practice deception is also fraught with peril!