Don't call it the placebo effect. Call it the placebo power.

by phil on Sunday Feb 6, 2011 2:47 PM

What's on my mind lately is the ability of mental metaphors to shape our thoughts. I've been flipping through this book, Mindfulness in Plain English (probably the highest rated book on Amazon about meditation), and about 60% of the book is about mental metaphors. For example:

After sitting motionlessly, close your eyes. Our mind is analogous to a cup of muddy water. The longer you keep a cup of muddy water still, the more the mud settles down and the water will be seen clearly. Similarly, if you keep quiet without moving your body, focusing your entire undivided attention on the subject of your meditation, your mind settles down and begins to experience the bliss of meditation.
Why is it that describing meditation this way helps us with meditation? When I meditate, I often think of that mud analogy, and the racing thoughts transform into a brown goop swirling around. Once that frame has been cast, I start to see the mud settle and proceed exactly like the book. Why does visualizing my thoughts as physical objects then allow me to manipulate them? What is the extent of this power?

I remember when I was in the 3rd grade or so, I had an unrequited crush on a girl, and couldn't go to sleep because I had so many negative thoughts. In a fit of frustration, I imagined myself balled up in a shell of energy, with all the thoughts swarming around me, and I concentrated on that ball of energy, and then visualized it exploding, and true enough, my mind became be free.

In the 11th grade, I remember going on a retreat where we wrote down negative thoughts on pieces of wood, and then proceeded to karate chop through them. Somehow that helped clear things up.

Maybe this is all related to the placebo effect. Scratch that, let's call it the placebo power. That's something that New Age types have been citing lately as proof of "mind over matter." And you know what... I agree with them. Despite being a dry-science atheist type, I agree with the New Age people. The placebo effect implies that we have, within us, the power to do as much self-healing as drugs.

I read a study about how after 8 weeks of meditation, MR scans of new practitioners showed increased grey matter density in parts of the brain associated with regulating stress, anxiety, increased empathy, better self-awareness, etc. And what's interesting to me is, that despite all the mounting scientific evidence correlating meditation with reduced anxiety and increased happiness, we still have no idea biologically how it works. There's some hazy ideas like, "well, it sets your brain to have more beta waves" or something like that. But how do those waves send instructions to those parts of the brain to add more grey matter?

It can't be pure clear-headedness. We underestimate how often our minds our clear. When we're in deep sleep, or during our routine morning commute, or when we're exercising, or engaged in some project, our brains are somehow empty. And yet, those things don't create that boost of the spirits that meditation brings.

It might have something to do with the placebo power. That somehow by sitting there, and willing our minds to be more calm, our brains then reconfigure themselves. So it's not just the suspension of racing thoughts that heals our mind, but rather when it's married with intention do we see change.


Ricky said on February 8, 2011 11:20 AM:

I remember the first time I learned about the placebo effect. It made so much sense to me somehow. So I was excited when I saw this article that is inline with what I believe: the same effects can be achieved through mindfulness, not trickery.

Leila said on February 8, 2011 3:44 PM:

You said that "The placebo effect implies that we have, within us, the power to do as much self-healing as drugs." This is so true. One of the most mind-boggling comments on drugs that I've ever read talked about how ANY drug we can create that has some effect on us already exists in our brains — or something chemically similar does. We wouldn't be able to perceive an effect of a drug if our brain did not have receptors for that drug — and our brain wouldn't have receptors for something it does not use itself.

Phil Dhingra said on February 8, 2011 3:46 PM:

That's a good point. We can't perceive any internal experiences that our brain isn't already primed and ready to perceive in the first place.

Anthony DeMarco said on February 17, 2011 3:17 AM:

I have come to realize that being able to visualize a healthy you helps a lot, maybe even more than medications, towards the healing process.

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