“The placebo effect is the measurable, observable, or felt improvement in health or behavior not attributable to a medication or invasive treatment that has been administered“
Here’s the question – meditation groups, prahnic breathing, Qi Kong, Tai Chi and yoga groups all advertise their courses in terms of health benefits, but is this real and good science? On the one hand there are measurable effects of some/all of these disciplines. On the other hand these effects might be explained by a shift towards healthy living in general, diet awareness, more exercise or even the placebo effect of just getting to the yoga studio. The act of hanging out with people who look, feel and act more healthy has been shown to have a big effect on ones own lifestyle and health.
When it comes to some of these spiritual disciplines a portion of the benefits might well be placebo. In medicine that means ‘not real’, and clinical trials seek to eliminate the placebo effect from the results. But perhaps a better way is to study the effect itself, and look at ways to enhance it. The Placebo Effect is not fake – it is a real and demonstrable effect on health. If meditation or other pursuit can capitalise on this, then it is all to the good.
Here’s one way to put the placebo effect together with classical conditioning – if a placebo is given together with a ‘real’ drug, its effect is to mimic the drug itself. For instance, if you are given real painkillers, they should have a marked effect on your pain level, over and above any placebo effect. But if one pill in 4 is a placebo, and the others are real painkillers, then the placebo will have almost the same effect as the real pills – you have just increased the placebo effect dramatically for pain relief. And with fewer chemicals getting into your system. Curiously this even works if you know in advance that some of the pills are placebos. [article] Incidentally, if the pills are given by a person in a white coat with a clipboard, then both the fake and the real painkillers will have more effect. [article]
So is a healthy mind the key to a healthy body?
Certainly a big part of the placebo effect is attitude. If your mind feels healthy and happy, if you are looking after your mental life properly, then this, like the placebo effect, should have a marked effect on your overall health. Since there is no downside it is worth looking into.
MBSR studies showed for instance, using good science, that ultraviolet treatment for psoriasis of the skin brings about healing four times faster if accompanied with mindfulness meditation. [article]
Still, for many meditators, we don’t do meditation just in the hope of staving off illness. It is an end in itself, and worthy in itself. the Buddha said even if the practise involved a hundred years in hell, it would be worthwhile. Meditation shows you how poorly managed your thoughts are, and how little attention you pay to yourself. It shows the mind to itself; and through seeing the cause and effect, directly, without all the dogma, speculation and opinions, so that wisdom can arise. In Buddhism at least, wisdom arises with seeing your own self, and is the tool of liberation. Wisdom can teach you the lessons you need to change.
If body healing is part of this path, all the better.
The Egyptian outer temple of Luxor says “the body is the house of God“, and inside the advice is followed by “know thyself … and you will know the Gods“
On Saturday 8th June we will be discussing this and other thoughts on meditation and body health at our Cappuccino Club meeting, at the fabulous Ariyasom Villa. You are welcome to come and share your thoughts … !