Do the positive and negative of placebos and nocebos point to thought as king in healthcare concerns?

For his most recent “Other Voices” column, my West Coast colleague Eric Nelson tracked down an amazingly thought-provoking video on the placebo effect, that I share below, and introduced it by saying, “Have a look at the video below (very entertaining, by the way!).  And for some insight into the Christian Science “take” on placebos, check out this “oldie but goodie” article from the Christian Science Sentinel.”

The Daily

At the same time an East Coast friend sent me notice of an article on nocebos – the darker twin of the positive placebo.  The article, called Mind over meds – patients can weaken painkillers’ punch by negative thoughts – by Benjamin Carlson, in Rupert Murdoch’s iPad newspaper The Daily – starts out with the line: “Told that a powerful painkiller would not bring relief, subjects in a new study from Oxford University* felt the “nocebo” effect – as much pain as if they hadn’t been given the drug at all.”  Lead researcher Irene Tracey was quoted as saying “We not only overrode all the goodness of the positive expectation, we overrode the goodness of the drug itself.”

To which one might gently add the query…or does such an experiment even point towards the fact that there is no intrinsic goodness in the drug itself?  Is it possible that what these kinds of experiments are probing and proving is that all the effects that drugs appear to have are actually the evidence of the impact of educated belief on the body?

In a 2010 Associated Press article called Placebo treatments stronger than doctors thought by Maria Cheng – AP Medical Writer – psychologist Linda Blair, spokeswoman for the British Psychological Society, explained “It’s not that placebos or inert substances help, it’s that people’s belief in inert substances help.”

This kind of comment is really important, and all kudos to Dr. Tracey and her team for pursuing their research with an open mind and for frankly reporting the results that they got. Whether they know it or not, such scientists have a kindred spirit in the “discoverer” of Christian Science, Mary Baker Eddy.  Back in the late nineteenth century she was experimenting with placebos and uncovered the effects of nocebos – even though she didn’t coin those names for the positive and negative effects of the beliefs which, respectively, she identified and warned against.

The significant contrast between Mary Baker Eddy’s conclusions and the trend of scientific thought is that the latter often tries to tie down the cause and effect in material terms while Mrs Eddy was very comfortable concluding that cause and effect were solely mental.  In fact, she became convinced that the only power of a drug was to give both the doctor’s and the patient’s thought something to believe in, and through that belief to bring about a reaction in the body, thus making thought the key factor in any case.

As Eric commented after watching the video, it reminded him ‘of what Mary Baker Eddy, an avid researcher into the placebo effect, concluded after her own experiments with what she referred to as “unmedicated pellets” – “The prescription which succeeds in one instance fails in another, and this is owing to the different mental states of the patient. These states are not comprehended, and they are left without explanation except in Christian Science.” (Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, p. 149)’

The book’s explanation of the ‘medicine’ needed for the cure is perhaps even more startling – the medicine is the power of divine Mind, God, coming to the human consciousness to enlighten it to the nature of spiritual reality.  That is, the patient is thought itself, and what thought is demanding for itself is a clearer grasp of the goodness of God as the life of man – of all men, women, and children.

In her time, Mary Baker Eddy set out to prove this with many remarkable instances of healing.  Today, many people are still proving this premise with healing results.  Tomorrow, perhaps such a non-material explanation will dawn increasingly on sincere scientists as to why placebos often outperform the “real drug”, and why “nocebos” neutralise the supposed effect of a “clinically proven” drug…and give proper place to thought as king in healthcare concerns!

* This study, which involved researchers from Oxford University in the U.K., is published in the Feb. 16 issue of Science Translational Medicine.  For more details about this study, here is an article from the US Dept. of Health and Human Services website focused solely on the study, called Placebo Effect May Work in Reverse, and sub-titled “With ‘nocebo’ effect, pain levels rose as patients’ belief in painkiller fell, study found.”


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Categories: Christian Science, Is Drug Dependence Healthy?, Medical Matters, Pharmaceuticals

Author:Tony Lobl

I write and edit articles on spirituality from the perspective of the practice of Christian Science as an Associate Editor for the Christian Science periodicals. I studied at the University of Surrey earning a BSc Hons Degree in Modern Mathematics before the teachings of Christian Science transformed my life and re-shaped my career.


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One Comment on “Do the positive and negative of placebos and nocebos point to thought as king in healthcare concerns?”

  1. Courtenay Rule
    March 5, 2011 at 10:48 am #

    Not only is that video indeed amazingly thought-provoking, it’s narrated by a fellow Aussie! Good on ya, Tony mate!! 🙂

    More seriously… I’m just remembering a sort of “nocebo” experience I had as a child. All my family suffer from hayfever and sinus problems – well, I seem to recall Mum didn’t until she’d seen my dad and me suffering from them for a few years, and then she started to get the same thing. At one stage, she was taking a particular well-known brand of hayfever/sinus-clearing drug, which she swore always worked. I was convinced it didn’t – mainly because I hated taking tablets, and these ones tasted particularly nasty. And sure enough, whenever I did bring myself to take it, it didn’t have any significant effect on the symptoms…

    More recently, I’m deeply grateful to say, I was finally healed of that long-standing problem through Christian Science. I’m now just waiting a year or two to confirm it’s an absolutely complete healing, and then I hope to write it up for the Christian Science Sentinel. 🙂

    Thanks again, Tony, for sharing such important ideas!

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