Saturday, September 08, 2007

Placebo Effect and Mesmer by Bernardo

Recently I listened to an interesting radio show, which added some substance to my views on people's religious experiences. I thought I should share this with you and get your impression. Randy, if you would like to publish the text below as a guest post on your God Vs No God blog, feel free.

New York's NPR station, WNYC, produces an excellent weekly show called "Radio Lab". The two hosts chat with each other, and with diverse experts (typically scientists and historians and doctors and psychologists, but sometimes people who just have unusual jobs or experiences), about interesting topics such as what time is, where the sense of self comes from, how memories are formed and recalled (or forgotten), how stress works, morality, mortality, etc. You can listen to it online and I strongly recommend it.

Anyways, they had one episode about the placebo effect. The show was introduced with the real-life story of a Native American who became skeptical of the healing powers claimed by the tribe's shaman. The young man simply could not believe that all that chanting and ritual had any effect on disease. So he "went undercover" and asked to become an apprentice shaman. As well as how to make certain remedies using plants and other substances, he learned many theatrical "tricks", such as putting some feathers in his mouth, biting the inside of his cheek to draw blood, then pretending to "suck" out the disease from the patient and then spitting out the bloody feathers. Knowing that the theatrics involved were just that, he started his shaman work, faking it just like the shaman who taught him. But, to his amazement, the "tricks" worked, even though sometimes he wasn't really doing anything (as far as giving them substances that might help them).

From there, the first half of the show is spent talking with scientists about how the placebo effect works. In case you're curious: Say you take a substance, be it aspirin or caffeine or ecstasy or an antidepressant, and it has some effect on you. The fact that it had an effect indicates that your cells have receptors for this substance (or for one very much like it), molecular "locks" that are triggered when a certain kind of "key" molecule snaps into them. But if your cell already has those receptors, then human cells have always had those receptors, and this means that your body can already manufacture that substance (or one very much like it). Somewhere in your body - maybe in one specific gland, maybe in every cell - you have the power to manufacture most of the kinds of "medicines" and "mind-altering substances" you need. The hard part is triggering that production. Mysteriously, thinking that you have ingested a substance that has a certain effect, can often somehow trigger the production of whatever substance the body can make which comes closest to having that effect, at least for a little while. Yes, this is an incomplete explanation but it contains some elegant and powerful insights I did not have until I heard it.

The second half of that show is what I really want to talk about. It talked about faith healers, and about a German guy in the 1700s named Mesmer (from whom we get the word "mesmerized") who claimed to "magnetize" things and to cure diseases using "animal magnetism", a ether-like substance that connects all living things. For example, he would rub magnetized iron rods against a tree, and claim that the tree now channeled "animal magnetism". His patients would then touch the tree, start shaking and moaning and convulsing and screaming... and after a while, many of them got better. But real doctors were losing patients to this, and scientists were understanding magnetism well enough at the time to know that this Mesmer was probably making this stuff up. So a commission of scientists (including Ben Franklin, the US's ambassador to France at the time) was formed, not to investigate whether Mesmer's magnetism worked (because, in many cases, it did) but to investigate whether it involved any real phenomenon external to the people treated by it, any kind of fluid or field that had real effects on the world. They performed a simple test: One of five trees was "magnetized" by Mesmer (or one of his followers, since he franchised this practice), and a patient being treated this way was asked to identify which of the 5 trees was "magnetized". As you may guess, few patients got it right. Still, the effects of mesmerism could not be denied, since a lot of people got better from what ailed them. The commission concluded that the effects of Mesmer's "Animal Magnetism" were not caused by any real ether-like fluid or field, but by the imaginations of the patients.

Many people today claim to have religious experiences, to see lights and speak in tongues, to be taken over by the Holy Spirit, etc. This is most noticeable in Pentecostals who are famous for this kind of stuff, and in Christian Scientists who claim that all disease is really just problems in one's relationship with God, but most Christians will claim to have perceived ( i.e. been affected by) the divine supernatural in some way. Listening to the story about mesmerism, about what it was like and the effects it had, made me think that these things can be easily explained as being induced by the person experiencing it, a kind of placebo effect, which makes sense since these people are the ones who believe that the Holy Spirit could actually come and make itself felt.

So, I ask: What is the difference between the Holy Spirit and Animal Magnetism?

Both have real observable effects. Neither can be shown to be triggered by anything outside the mind of the person experiencing it. I think that experiencing the divine is either a placebo effect, or the assigning of supernatural causes to phenomena that are naturally caused (like they used to with the weather, disease, etc).

Here is the MP3 of this show I am talking about. The part about mesmerism is from 42:35 to 50:20.

And some more links for reference:

What do you think?
- Bernardo

1 comment:

Randy Kirk said...

I have experienced both hypnosis for the purpose of therapy, and also was taught self-hypnosis. I was able to get results, although they weren't so amazing or long lasting that I felt like continuing ingthe exercise.

Alternatively, in my laboratory of personal experience, the model that seems to work for me is Bible study for the purpose of understanding who God is and what His intentions are for my life as one of His children, and prayer. I repeat these approaches because I get consistent results. I do not use drugs, drink, gamble, etc., because my model has shown these to be temporary fixes for problems in the way that hypnosis is.

Overall, the placebo effect makes total sense to me. The cool and new thing was how placebo's might work.