Despite eight months of therapy since John's car accident there was still a nagging pain in his right shoulder. An MRI could not find the source of his pain, and his medications did little to give him relief. Frustrated, John went to a holistic doctor who gave him homeopathic drops and instructed him to do a special breathing technique several times a day. Within two days John's pain vanished, and he hurried to share the good news with his medical doctor. His doctor was not impressed though. He dismissed the story, explaining that John's recovery was no more than a "placebo effect."
This confused John. While one part of him was happy to be feeling better, another part of him felt uneasy. Something about the way his doctor referred to "placebo" made John feel that his loss of pain was of little value - that it was being dismissed because he had somehow "cheated" the healing process by using techniques that were as unscientific and unverifiable as sorcery.
Welcome to the misunderstood world of placebos
Placebo comes from a Greek word that translates as "I will help". It is a ritual wherein we may take a potion, eat a food, or do some behavior - AND add to that a belief that through our eating or doing, some beneficial outcome will happen for us. Eating sugar pills with the belief that they will cure us of some condition is a common placebo. So too are a great many of the superstitions and other rituals we perform on a regular basis. As long as our placebos are harmless and lead to good outcomes, most of us generally accept them without too much grumbling.
It's not a question of whether placebos work. They do. When used creatively, a good placebo can be powerful enough to help us overcome just about any malady that comes our way - from pains and allergies to autoimmune disorders, even cancers.
But let's be clear about what placebos are and what they are not. Placebos consist of two elements. The first is what we call a black box. The second is our intention.
The "black box" portion of our placebo has no mechanical, electrical or chemical properties that can scientifically or logically explain why our beneficial outcomes are happening. It is the non-functional, non-operational, and essentially the dummy portion of our placebo. The purpose of the black box is to give us something to focus on while the true force that orchestrates our healing does its work - and that force comes from the power of our intention.
"Our intention is one of the most powerful forces in all eternity.
It is the key driving force behind all placebos."
When we learn how to directly access our power of intention in a positive way, it motivates our innate forces to bring us clarity, well being, and joy in our life. If we haven't figured out how to directly access the power of our intentions though, we can always do it indirectly through the black box portion of our placebos. As long as we are clear that the black boxes are merely vehicles for our intention everything is generally OK. If not it can be a problem. Black boxes are notorious for being misrepresented as the true cause of our outcomes. Sometimes this is done for fun and profit. At other times it is just done out of ignorance. How often have we heard of someone who got magical results from some potion or product - and when we tried the same product it did nothing for us?
For example - one man believed that by watching comedy movies, his cancer would go away. He watched diligently and his cancer vanished. The movies were his "black box". It gave him the ability to channel the true healing tool - his power of his intention.
Other cancer victims heard of the man's story and tried to replicate his good fortune by watching the same comedy movies - yet died right on schedule. The difference - they didn't realize that the "black box" had no actual power - that all of the power lay in their intention, and that lay essentially untapped.
We also need to be clear about the type of miseries that best respond to intention-based therapies. The following story helps illustrate this point:
If we dream that a tiger is chasing us, a real life gun will never be able to save us from our peril. Only a dream gun will. Conversely, if we are out in the jungle and a real life tiger is chasing us, a dream gun will be of no value to us. Only a real life gun will be able to get the job done.
Many of our mishaps come from physical causes - car crash injuries, falling down stairs, work place injuries. These miseries are best addressed using conventional therapies. On the other hand, we experience far more miseries that begin in our mind - or that come from the dream tigers we have conjured up. For them, placebos and other intention based therapies are the best dream guns we can use to address them.
In healthcare we need a broad collection of tools, some that can address the miseries that come from our mind and some that can address the miseries that come from physical causes. Medicine and physical therapy are profoundly powerful tools for addressing the miseries that come from "physical" causes. BUT when we use them to try to resolve "physical-appearing" conflicts that were caused by our minds we end up squandering our resources. Plainly put - physical tools do not resolve mind problems, and it is frustrating when patients are given psychiatric medications because their doctors can't figure out why they are in pain, and they don't know what else to do.
A new training is called for - one that categorizes these intention-based therapies. A large number of them are utter nonsense, but not ALL of them.
How can I be so certain of this? Easy - I was the holistic doctor who gave John the homeopathic drops and taught him how to breathe. John is but one of a vast number of patients whose physical pain did not come from a physical source. His pain was brought on by stress and anxiety. He is a typical example of how a good intention based therapy can overcome these pains when nothing else will.
And so in defense of placebos, let's not be so quick to judge them so negatively. They serve as fun, colorful devices that can stimulate our innate powers to heal many parts of us that are untouchable by conventional medical healthcare. In a surprising number of cases - they are the right tool for the job. Placebos have been cloaked in negativity for far too long. Maybe it's time to give 'em a fresh look.