Placebos and Moving Beyond The Human Mind

The following guest blog is written by my friend Steve Graham. Much of his career as an editor has been centered on spiritual reporting. He writes from his home in Natick, MA.

Recent studies into the placebo effect–in which patients notice improved mental or physical conditions despite the “non-specific” nature of the treatment they receive–have multiplied dramatically. While today’s medical community may frown on using placebos as a treatment option, they are frequently used in medical research. Opinions vary widely on the validity of the placebo effect, and there’s plenty of skepticism to go around.

But maybe the most significant point about all this is that it’s been getting people to consider a mental aspect to disease and its cure.

Evidence has mounted that what a person believes about his or her treatment can have as much power to effect healing results as the treatment itself.

According to a recent article in The New Yorker, “In several recent studies, placebos have performed as well as drugs that Americans spend millions of dollars on each year” (Michael Specter, “The Power of Nothing,” December 12, 2011).

The article describes that in attempts to explain this phenomenon, placebo research has been concluding that brain chemistry may ultimately explain the pain relief and other instances of improved health associated with placebos.

In 2011 Harvard University created an institute dedicated to the study of placebos called the Program in Placebo Studies and the Therapeutic Encounter, naming Ted Kaptchuk as its director.

Beginning in 1976, Kaptchuk practiced acupuncture at a tiny clinic in Cambridge after spending four years in Asia studying this alternative practice. Soon after he arrived in Boston he treated an Armenian woman for chronic bronchitis. The New Yorker article relates that “A few weeks later, the woman returned with her husband and told Kaptchuk that he had “cured” her. ‘It had to be some kind of placebo,’ Kaptchuk stated. ‘I’ve always believed there is an important component of medicine that involves suggestion, ritual, and belief.'”

In his book “Snake Oil Science: The Truth About Complementary and Alternative Medicine,” University of Maryland Prof. R. Barker Bausell defines a placebo effect as “any genuine psychological or physiological response to an inert or irrelevant substance or procedure.” Bausell tells about some of the first research into placebos, which took place well over 200 years ago in France.

In 1779, Franz Anton Mesmer, an Austrian doctor, had published his discovery of an organic healing power, or energy, that involved a combination of magnetic therapy and hypnosis. And it seemed people were getting better under his treatment.

A commission was formed to investigate Mesmer’s claim to a healing “animal magnetism,” which was used in an early version of the single-blind study. Everyone in a group of subjects was told that Mesmer’s animal magnetic energy was being directed at them, but his procedure was only performed on a portion of the group.

The commission ended up concluding that Mesmer’s method lacked any healing power beyond the realm of human imagination. The good effects that patients experienced were evidently just the result of what they were thinking.

Yet this study some two centuries years ago and those going on today in our backyard in Boston point to the power of thought on healthy outcomes. The common notion that the  physical organism is where everything begins and ends no longer holds as much water.

Placebos (as well as so-called nocebos) open the door on a world where a person’s mental state produces physiological effects. Nevertheless, they should not be confused with spiritual healing–a method of treatment that, while purely mental in nature, denies that healing power can reside in the human mind or brain.

For those who count God as the supreme intelligence, this divine power cares for the human need for healing and wellness. But unlike a placebo, this power isn’t inert or irrelevant, fraudulent or imaginary.

Nineteenth-century theologian Mary Baker Eddy–who recognized the connection between consciousness and health–wrote the following in her definitive work on Christian Science:

“Many imagine that the phenomena of physical healing in Christian Science present only a phase of the action of the human mind, which action in some unexplained way results in the cure of disease. On the contrary, Christian Science rationally explains that all other pathological methods are the fruits of human faith in matter,–faith in the workings, not of Spirit [God], but of the fleshly mind which must yield to Science” (Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, p. xi).

It’s on the basis of seeking to understand my direct relation to God, or divine Mind, that I, along with so many others, have experienced consistent healing as explained by Christian Science.


  1. Virginia McCullough says

    What an important point this blog makes — that it is the divine Mind, God, that heals not the human mind. Thank you, too, for the history.