Placebo Effect

I often had stomach problems as a kid. I contracted gastroenteritis fairly often and was hospitalized for it a handful of times. I remember those experiences vividly because the pain I’d feel was excruciating. It would come in waves of intensity and would consume my whole consciousness. No amount of medication, massage or herbal teas would take the pain away.

That is until I discovered the Purple Plate.

It was my father who introduced me to this mystical object. It was a small, flat and rectangular object slightly larger than a card holder. Yet, what was mesmerizing about it was its brilliant purple sheen and incredibly smooth surface. It was one of those objects that you just love feeling in your hands for its texture.

I first found it peeking out of my dad’s shirt pocket once when I had terrible stomach cramps. I asked my dad about it and he seemed surprised I had seen it. He brought it out of his pocket and showed it to me and asked me if I could keep a secret. I nodded, eyes wide with anticipation. And he said that it was a magical object with healing powers. I told him he was kidding, but he said he wasn’t. If I didn’t believe him I could hold it against my stomach and see.

I held the plate up to the light and it’s metallic sheen appeared almost otherworldly. I rubbed it with my hands and it felt remarkably cool to the touch. Finally, I placed it on my stomach and waited. I began to feel my abdomen relax and to my surprise the cramps began to ease, gradually becoming more and more bearable with each moment that passed. After a while, the cramps stopped altogether.

I was convinced.

I asked my dad if I could use it all the time and he said no. Magical objects such as these were only effective when they were used sparingly. Only in times of absolute need must one turn to magic. And so, the purple plate became my talisman. It never failed me. It was always my absolute last resort. But when the pain became unbearable, I’d ask my dad for the Purple Plate and he’d nod and produce it from a box like some sacred object. And I would thank my stars that I had the Purple Plate in my life.

By the time I became a teen, my stomach issues were gone and I never saw the Purple Plate again. When I think about it today, I don’t believe the plate has the kind of power I imagined it did as a child. But what I do know is that the healing effect that resulted was very real.

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The placebo effect is a medical phenomenon in which patients provided with a placebo (usually a sugar pill with no medicinal properties) will demonstrate a similar healing response as patients who were provided with the actual medicine. The human mind when presented with a reality, which it fully accepts, has the capacity to then orchestrate that same reality into existence. In the case of the placebo effect, that “orchestration of reality” is the healing process.

Yet, beyond the world of medicine, the placebo effect is something that is a dominant aspect of most of our lives. I’m referring to the ideological placebos known as “beliefs”. And beliefs have the power to shape realities not only in our minds, but also in our circumstances.

We live in a hyper-rational world which is becoming increasingly allergic to “beliefs”. Beliefs are seen as the enemy of rational scientific inquiry. They are relegated to the realm of supernatural and woo-woo. Even spirituality today, is becoming increasingly divested of beliefs, relying on empirical and immediate experience rather than dogmatic systems of unqualified beliefs.

I’m on board with all of this. To question the veracity of everything is paramount if one is to approach the truth and see one’s reality with greater clarity. Unquestioned beliefs swallowed wholesale do nothing to further us in that direction.

And yet, there is something to be said for the placebo effect.

I’m not on the anti-belief bandwagon either. Because although I am averse to the “content” of what people believe, I have to be willing to admit that the act of believing in itself is a powerful shaper of reality.

I’ve talked about the following story in an interview I did with Robert Saltzman last year. But I’ll repeat it here for those who haven’t watched it.

There’s this documentary on Netflix called “Fearless”, that I highly recommend watching, about the world of Professional Bull Riding. It is a brutally unforgiving sport and few make it far into their careers because of the high risk of injury and even death. Now, this is a sport which is predominantly American and most of the professional championships happen in the United States. As a result of this, most bull riding professionals tend to be American. However, there exists a minority pool of Brazilian bull riders on the professional circuit. And in the last decade or so, they have absolutely dominated the sport with most of the championship titles being won by the Brazilians almost exclusively year after year.

Why? Why do these riders, who grow up with next to nothing compared to their American peers, with far fewer opportunities and facilities, come to dominate the sport in this way? One could say, well since they grow up with so little, perhaps they are hungrier to win. That’s a valid argument, but it doesn’t capture the whole of it, in my opinion.

The one thing that I found was almost unanimous in all of the Brazilian riders, showcased in this documentary series, was their staunch Catholic belief. Every single one is a devout catholic. And so they have this narrative always running in their head that allows them to entrust their fate in the hands of god. Many times, when badly injured, they learn to push past the pain as they believe that they are being called to something greater than themselves. And it is that extra inch that they are willing to push themselves past their American rivals that seems to make the difference. Winning title after title, then becomes proof of their faith. And a positive feedback cycle is created, whereby they elevate the sport to levels previously unfathomable.

So, while the content of their beliefs I.e. their scripture may be questionable to some, what cannot be questioned is the incredible effect it appears to have.

Which begs the question: Is there a way one can harness the power of belief without in fact “believing” something?

To answer this, we need to understand what belief does to the mind.

The way I see it, a belief organizes and focuses the awareness of the mind towards something. It eliminates ambiguity and thereby optimizes output. It streamlines the mind’s thinking, feeling and perception thereby making it highly efficient in a particular regard.

If you think of our everyday consciousness, there is so much wasted energy in the things we attempt to focus on. Doubts, distractions, renegotiating terms, revisiting our intentions, inner debates and arguments and so on. You can think of all of these as a kind of office politics being played by all the different voices in your head. And so at the end of the day, just as in any corporation, only about ten per cent of all the effort expended gets converted into any real work. The rest is just dissipated energy.

However, when a belief is driving an endeavour, there is an inner regimentation of the mind. Rather than a corporate office, the mind begins to appear more like a military battalion with all the troops lined up and following orders. The stronger the belief, the greater the regimentation. As a result, the output is highly efficient. Things like doubt and distraction are weakened by the unifying vision of the belief. Things like renegotiating terms and revisiting intentions are virtually non-existent since the terms and intentions are already hardcoded into the belief. Inner debates and arguments will be mostly superficial.

So, it seems evident, that belief tends to neutralize the forces of inertia that typically prevent us from acting in an effective manner. This is the positive aspect of belief.

The negative aspect, of course, lies in the fact that all those agents of inertia that we just mentioned (doubt, distraction, renegotiation, revisiting intentions, inner debates and arguments) are not really negative things. If they become compulsive in a person then they can certainly be paralyzing. Yet, they also serve the very vital function of questioning reality, questioning our assumptions in a bid to arrive at a more nuanced truth.

So, while the Brazilian bull-rider may push himself to the absolute edge believing that his life will be guided by god’s hand, another bull-rider may stop at that cusp and ask the question, “Is this worth it? Is there something else I could be doing with my time that may be worthwhile?”

This other rider, in asking that question, may be presented with the option to evolve in a whole new direction that the Brazilian rider may not.

Is there a way then, to have the best of both worlds? To harness the organizing power of belief and yet to retain the course correcting effect of doubt when it is necessary?

These are the kinds of questions I’ve been reflecting on for years. I started out as a believer of many things, supernatural and otherwise, before going through a long phase of complete skepticism about anything that wasn’t rational and verifiable including all forms of spirituality. And through my experiences, I came upon that essential ingredient that needs no ideology built upon it and does not stand in opposition to doubt.

That ingredient is “faith”.

Faith is the essence of a belief but it isn’t the belief itself. It is an undeniable sense of an organizational structure to life that is not only intelligent but also responsive to our own intelligence. It emerges from a deep intimacy with life.

For example, I can say I have faith in my wife and daughters. Because I know them intimately. I know the stuff they are made of. I know their strengths, I know their flaws, I know where the rise and where they falter. And it is this familiarity and intimacy that provides me with the faith I have in them. I have absolutely no doubt about it. Yet, these aren’t beliefs. This is not some set of rules or guidelines or ideological image I have created of them. It is based in reality and experience.

Similarly, I can say I have faith in myself. Because I am intimate with myself, the inner workings of my mind. I know my strengths, my limitations. I know my capacity to rise and where I tend to falter. I know my darkness and my light. I am intimate with both and have respect for the whole of it. This invokes a sense of great faith within me. Yet, this faith has nothing to do with infallibility. Rather it is an ever evolving understanding of just how fallible I am.

And so faith is a kind of knowing. It is a knowing of a different flavour altogether than the knowing of the rational mind. It is a feeling, resonating, intuiting kind of knowing.

The mind of the hardline skeptic or fundamentalist atheist claims, “if I cannot see it then it cannot be said to exist”. Yet, when walking in darkness you still bump into things you can’t see. Pretending they are not there just because you can’t see them isn’t very wise.

The believer, on the other hand, claims to be certain about what those things are. He claims to be able to “see” things that he evidently can’t. Thus, the skeptic and the believer are at eternal loggerheads with one another because the ludicrousness of the other’s position seems sufficient proof of their own stance.

Faith, on the other hand, neither claims to see what it can’t nor claims that what it can’t see cannot exist. Instead, it acknowledges the things that it bumps into and tries to explore them in a different way.

Faith is the hand that feels and familiarizes itself in the dark, when the eyes have been rendered useless. It lacks the big picture view that the eyes provide, yet it learns to become intimate with what it encounters in each moment. Each curve, each edge, each texture is felt and acknowledged in a way that the eyes never can. In this way, a different kind of understanding dawns.

When one is guided by faith, ones awareness is organized in a manner much like the person of belief. Yet, this organization is not the result of a regimentation of thought but rather by an immediacy of focus. One is entirely preoccupied with observing, listening, gleaning, sensing. There is little doubt because there is no ideological position to doubt. There is little distraction, because one has learned from experience that when one becomes distracted, the finger slips from the pulse of the moment.

Yet, precisely because one is navigating one’s environment in a sensitive manner, one is alert to potential red flags. One is ready to question one’s assumptions in a heartbeat if something feels off. Just like a stag, strolling through the woods suddenly stops at the sound of a twig snapping.

In my own life, faith has played a powerful role in how life has played out for me. It has taught me to operate in an entirely different way than the world taught me I should operate. It has taught me how to be in communion with life and build an intimacy with it. How to learn what is needed of me, how to request what I authentically desire in a way that it is inevitably granted. This has nothing to do with “grace” or any such notion. Nor does it have to do with life being compassionate or all-loving. Life has done me no favours.

But it has been fair. It has responded in kind. It has given to me what I have given to it. It has entrusted to me what I have entrusted to it. It has revealed to me in the measure that I have allowed myself to BE revealed.

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