By: Lynette Louise aka THE BRAIN BROAD
Recently a colleague accused me of engaging the placebo effect. He remarked, “You are far too wonderful and I cannot replicate your results. Perhaps you’re not just making the changes with neurofeedback but are instead enhancing the placebo effect with your personality.”
I thought, “Why, of course. In my opinion that is what all good healthcare professionals do, improve on what already is.”
There wasn’t time to enter into a discussion on placebo power at that moment, so I just thanked him for the complimentary complaint and returned my attention to my client.
I thought about this a lot for the next few days. You see, in my opinion, the placebo is the power.
Years ago they trained doctors to “distract the patient so that they will get out of the way and let their bodies heal themselves”. Hence, the sugar pill became a much-used patient distract-er. Years passed and the sugar pill, which began as a good idea, morphed into proof that the patient’s original illness was, in fact, not real. Because sugar, which was not a “real” medicine, was used to cure it. Sugar, which, in fact, does have medicinal qualities and can be used to improve the rate at which wounds heal, ended up distracting the medical community instead of the patient. And the power of the placebo got a misunderstood bad reputation for neurotic invention.
In fact, the original idea of distracting the patient away from their illness by implementing anything they could empower with their beliefs as beneficial, during a time of few effective medicines, therapies and procedures, was good advice. It worked as long as the damage wasn’t too extensive, and the patient believed. In fact, this “believing” to engage placebo may be the process by which many spiritual healings take place. Or, and these are just my thoughts, is it the process of all healings; aided by the belief we hold in our physician and pharmaceuticals. Perhaps our beliefs are built up out of fear and contrast. It is possible that the long list of negative side effects rambled quickly in every pharmaceutical commercial we’re exposed to convinces us, by nature of the human inclination, to more readily accept negative statements as proof of the medicine’s positive power.
I see this as possible because I have effectively used this type of contrast to what is perceived as negative results in order to reinforce the power of the therapy I’m sharing.
For example, some people want to be cynical and insist I “prove” that biofeedback is, in fact, useful before they will let me help them. So (with their permission) I ask them if they would like to feel worse, in order to believe. Men have a tendency to answer yes to this question. So, if they have a headache, I invite the brain to increase the headache before I invite the brain to make it go away. I explain what I’m doing, step upon step. And the effect is convincing if you are the one feeling the changes.
And, yes, their experience might simply be caused by the art of harnessing the placebo (or nocebo) effect.
This is especially viable since biofeedback is, at its core, teaching the body and the brain how to heal itself.
And if my clinical experience is of any importance then our brains and bodies do exactly that, heal themselves. Watching people grow healthier despite their degenerative conditions, like Parkinson’s, or become independent despite improbable productive prognosis, like severe Cerebral Palsy, is truly amazing. I am blessed to be part of the story every single day.
The point is, with so many amazing changes, and considering the fact that biofeedback is basically just teaching the body and the brain how to operate more effectively, I do believe that part of what we biofeedback professionals do is enhance and harness the placebo effect.
And though this is part of the solution, it is also a big part of the problem in getting biofeedback fully accepted into mainstream medicine. No matter how good things get, if we attribute the progress to placebo then the results are brought into question.
Clinical results are ignored and/or labeled unfounded because they are suspected of being placebo. But clinical results are the results the client actually lives with. And though studies may be more thorough in their data acquisition and comparative statistics, they attempt to control for and/or eliminate what may be medicine’s most powerful ally: placebo.
Additionally, studies tend to separate the client from the situation they would normally be in. Studies need to control for extraneous effects, and as a result often end up studying something that never happens. I don’t know about you but I never experience insomnia in a lab, because I never sleep in one.
So if the placebo effect is the true power of healing, what can we learn from conducting studies in a way that separates it out of the scenario? I suggest we embrace, enhance, and harness all aspects of the patient’s magnificent healing tools; brain, body, and the information gathering system of sensory feedback loops. I suggest we unfold our arms, cease our cynicism, and embrace the wholeness of our healing.
After all, if the only real power is in the placebo we’re handicapping humanity and blocking up its immune function. Perhaps our immune systems are malfunctioning at such an alarming rate because we have decapitated them.
Just my thoughts; based on clinical experience.