A Case for Ritual

An article a few weeks back looked at the role of the placebo in giving treatments. One finding it reported was that when a real drug was given initially, and then placebo pills given afterwards, the placebo effect was enhanced.

The placebo effect is where an inert pill/cream/treatment is given while the patient believes it to be a real drug. While the ‘real’ medicine produces more healing, the placebo effect is also measurably real. It comes purely from the mind, and the expectation of healing.

If the mind can be tricked into doing this with a pill, might there not be other ways in which the mind can affect healing? Might this be effective for some illnesses but not others? Most importantly is the question if certain kinds of meditation can re-produce this healing effect of the mind?

The article mentions one way to enhance the placebo – by mixing it with the real drugs. It seems that placebo healing is increased if there is a real drug affect to associate the pills with. So if 20% of the pills you take are fake (and patients can be told this) you will save 20% of the drug cost, yet maybe get the same effect.

But another aspect of the article was most interesting. There is a ‘context effect’ of giving treatment – that is patients given drugs (painkillers) invisibly by machine need more of the drug than those who get to meet and talk with the Doctor who administers the drug openly.

The theory goes that it is the making appointments, going to the clinic and meeting with Doctors who show empathy – the whole ritual – that has the most marked healing effect.

“It’s this highly stylized, highly ritualized thing.” says Daniel Moerman, “forget about the stupid placebo and start looking at the system of meaning involved.”

If a ritualized visit to the Doctors can have a clearly measurable healing effect, what about a trip to a monastery by a meditator? Many Thais will ordain for a short while when recovering from an operation or illness. Perhaps it really works.

And perhaps the rituals of going to a temple, bowing, chanting, lighting incense etc.. has a very real effect on the psyche, and not just health.

Since the ritual of interacting with a Doctor the association with healing has a demonstrable effect, the rituals of religions should also have an associated benefit and purification effect, depending on your association. If you think it is religious mumbo-jumbo and ritual for the dumb, then you will likely experience little more than boredom. But by building an association between the rituals and symbols you can make the very abstract concepts of religion much more real for yourself. The trick is to form the right associations with repetition over a period of time.

Something to work on.