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?


50 years ago today Kitty Genovese was killed

And everything we thought we knew about the case and what it said about human nature turns out to be wrong.

This case became the archetypal example of the bystander effect.  Of course, human beings are exposed to all sorts of potentially troubling (and potentially dangerous) incidents involving strangers, and there are lots of variables that might make people more or less likely to intervene.

But the truth of the Genovese case isn’t quite as dramatic as we’ve always thought it to be.  NPR interviews Kevin Cook, author of a new book that tries to find out what really happened.

Neuroreductionism: “the tendency to perceive human experiences as valid or genuine only when they can be linked to measurable brain activity”

In Reason, Stanton Peele is skeptical that brain studies can tell us much about the nature of addiction: “Addiction is a specific involvement a person forms in a particular period in his life. Nothing more scientific can be said than that.”

I once heard a scientist – can’t remember who – say that interpreting brain-imaging scans is like looking down from an airplane at night and trying to figure out what people are talking about in their living rooms by interpreting the pattern of the lights.


Large-scale replication of psychology experiments

Rolf Zwaan summarizes this impressive effort to replicate 13 well-known psychology findings.

All but two – both priming experiments – survive the test.  In fact, some of the replications find effects greater than the original.

More of this, please.

He also proposes a novel, crowd-sourced approach to the development of new experiments.