Placebos

To my understanding as a Christian Scientist, this week’s CBS 60 Minutes piece on placebos points to the beneficial effects of the power of thought, the power of mind, the power of love, indeed, the power of God to heal.

In the 60 Minutes investigation, journalist Lesley Stahl interviewed Irving Kirsch, the associate director of the Placebo Studies Program at Harvard Medical School. According to Stahl, “Irving Kirsch’s specialty has been the study of the placebo effect: the taking of a dummy pill without any medication in it that creates an expectation of healing that is so powerful, symptoms are actually alleviated.”

Speaking about his research into antidepressant medication, Kirsch told viewers that “The difference between the effect of a placebo and the effect of an antidepressant is minimal for most people.”

“And,” Kirsch added, referring to those people he had studied who were taking actual antidepressant medication, “the reason they get better is not because of the chemicals in the drug. The difference between drug and placebo is very, very small; and in half the studies non-existent.”

The placebo effect goes far beyond cases of depression, according to Kirsch. He went on to say that he has found that “placebos are great for treating a number of disorders: irritable bowel syndrome, repetitive strain injuries, ulcers, Parkinson’s disease. Even traumatic knee pain. In this clinical trial some patients with osteoarthritis underwent knee surgery. While others had their knees merely opened and then sewn right back up. And here’s what happened. In terms of walking and climbing, the people who got the placebo actually did better than the people who got the real surgery. And that lasted for a year. At two years after surgery, there was no difference at all between the real surgery and the sham surgery.”

As a Christian Scientist, I find these comments very heartening. They could serve as a springboard to a deeper study of the mental or spiritual nature of health, of how much spirituality and prayer contribute to recovery, and of the efficacy of material means and methods in bringing about genuine healing.

Mary Baker Eddy, the Discoverer and Founder of Christian Science, writing over a century ago, said that she had found that drugs were efficacious because doctors and patients believed that they were so. “Unsupported by the faith reposed in it, the inanimate drug becomes powerless,” she writes in the Christian Science textbook, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures (p. 160).

Here is how she explains her reasons for reaching this conclusion and how this radical view played an important role in her founding of Christian Science:

“The author’s medical researches and experiments had prepared her thought for the metaphysics of Christian Science. Every material dependence had failed her in her search for truth; and she can now understand why, and can see the means by which mortals are divinely driven to a spiritual source for health and happiness.

“Her experiments in homoeopathy had made her skeptical as to material curative methods. Jahr, from Aconitum to Zincum oxydatum, enumerates the general symptoms, the characteristic signs, which demand different remedies; but the drug is frequently attenuated to such a degree that not a vestige of it remains. Thus we learn that it is not the drug which expels the disease or changes one of the symptoms of disease.

“The author has attenuated Natrum muriaticum (common table-salt) until there was not a single saline property left. The salt had ‘lost his savour;’ and yet, with one drop of that attenuation in a goblet of water, and a teaspoonful of the water administered at intervals of three hours, she has cured a patient sinking in the last stage of typhoid fever. The highest attenuation of homoeopathy and the most potent rises above matter into mind. This discovery leads to more light. From it may be learned that either human faith or the divine Mind is the healer and that there is no efficacy in a drug.” (ibid., pp. 152-153)

Mrs. Eddy discovered, as Jesus had demonstrated some 2,000 years earlier, that metaphysical, spiritual prayer is the most powerful healing medicine and treatment. She found that God, divine Mind, is the best healer.

Let me give an example. Kirsch speaks of the power of the placebo effect in treating knee pain. I have found in my own experience that it is possible for a knee injury to be healed without resorting either to medical intervention or to placebos. The Christian Science Journal recently published a healing through Christian Science treatment in my own experience. I had severely injured a knee by running up and down a New Hampshire mountain. I couldn’t walk for a few days, but through prayer the knee injury was healed, and when it returned recently in a milder fashion, it was healed again through prayer so that I am able to walk, hike, run, and bike freely. You can read about this healing in the February Christian Science Journal, which will soon be available online.

Do placebos bring healing? From my study and application of Christian Science to almost every human problem (for more than four decades), a placebo may temporarily help with recovery, but it does not heal. I have found that a higher power – namely God – is the healer. The Bible promises, “For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.” (Hebrews 4:12)

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