Mainstream modern medicine is based on the concept of proving what works and testing to make sure it’s safe. That’s a science. But then there’s the concept of the power of belief in medicine, which can help explain the placebo effect. Let’s look more at these concepts of science and belief in medicine.
The science part makes a lot of sense; you want to know that the medical treatment you’re receiving will help you, and not cause you serious harm. Sometimes it’s a balancing act; many medicines have side effects that can range from inconvenient to life-threatening, but the benefit they provide outweighs the possible risks. Chemotherapy and radiotherapy are treatments used to treat that most feared of all diseases: cancer. But in the process of killing the cancer cells, the rest of the body is affected too, making cancer treatment a tortuous process for many people.
However, because the alternative is so much worse, doctors still use these treatments when there is no other option, and patients still submit to the suffering involved in the hope they will stay alive. It’s perhaps not surprising then that alternative treatments are still so popular, even when there is little evidence to support their efficacy.
Why do people choose to reject conventional medicine?
There are many reasons why patients turn to alternative treatments. It could be because they aren’t feeling any benefit from the mainstream treatment they’ve been receiving. Perhaps because they’ve been told there’s little else that can be done for them, or they don’t feel their symptoms have been accurately diagnosed. Or they may have heard or read about the experiences of other sufferers who have improved under an alternative regime.
Alternatives have their own appeal too because they are generally far less unpleasant for the patient, and don’t have the side effects that conventional medicine can have. The question is if there is little supporting evidence that these treatments work, how do people who use them and reject conventional treatments sometimes make seemingly miraculous recoveries?
The placebo effect
You may be smiling to yourself now, thinking you know the answer to this question – it’s the placebo effect, right? A patient has the belief in medicine or the conviction that a treatment will work, so it does! It sounds simple and logical and has been tested over many decades in clinical trials that prove there is such an effect. However, that doesn’t tell the whole story.
The gold standard for clinical trials in medicine is the double-blinded study. In basic terms, it means that the study group is divided into equal numbers, one or two groups are given the treatment under review, the other group is given a placebo – a sugar pill or the equivalent, that has no active ingredients in it. In a double-blind, neither the test subjects nor whoever is administering the treatment knows who is getting which of the options. Therefore, any effects of foreknowledge about the treatment are eliminated. In theory, this means that the results of the treatment in the recipient groups can be compared fairly against the group that has not received the treatment.
… and beyond
So far, so good. Double-blinding takes care of any bias, or beliefs about the treatment that could affect the results, meaning that if the treatment under study produces a significant effect in the subjects receiving it, you have proof that the treatment works – or at least, you have another piece of evidence to support the science. What’s interesting is that the placebo group nearly always shows improvement too, even though they have had no treatment.
This is where the placebo effect is shown time and time again to make a difference. Patients who receive no treatment but believe they might be getting a new drug that could help them show improvement in their condition. It is this effect that is credited with achieving the results witnessed in the use of alternative treatments. Not that the treatments themselves are working, but that because the patient believes they will work, they get better. The fascinating question is, what is going on in the brain to cause this outcome?
The mysteries of the human brain
We know an awful lot more about the human brain than we did just a few years ago; but neurologists will tell you that for the most part, we still know comparatively little. People often speak about the power of the mind, the force of human will, the strength that comes from belief in medicine. But what does it all mean? What is going on in your gray matter that can wield such power? Is it a complex biochemical process we don’t yet understand? Is it the work of a higher power? Or could it be that there is more to the brain than we realize and that just because we have virtually no credible evidence for extrasensory perception and other psychic powers, they do exist?
The truth is, nobody knows for sure. Skeptics will say there is nothing beyond science. In other words, brains are organs that operate within the known laws of physics, and anything else is just hogwash. Those with religious beliefs say this is proof of the existence of a divine being, and that miracle recoveries are a demonstration of their superiority. Then there are those who believe there must be more to alternative medicine than placebo; it simply isn’t proven yet.
Belief in medicine: How it affects everyday life
Ask yourself the following question. When you go to the drugstore and see a branded painkiller next to the generic, unbranded version, which one do you choose? Do you believe that the branded one is better because it says so in the adverts? Plus, it costs more, so it must be better, right?
Have a look at the ingredients. You’ll see that a standard painkiller has exactly the same active ingredient, no matter what the packaging. That’s true of all drugs – take a look at eDrugSearch to find out more about the drugs behind the brand names, and you’ll see. Nevertheless, even when presented with this evidence, many people still say the branded version works better for them. There is no scientific reason why this should be so; but because they believe it, it works.
The challenge for science and medical research is to find out how this belief system works. Also, why it has such a notable effect on so many people? Then we could all benefit from the power of belief.