Friday, November 23, 2012

A Psychological Theory to Explain Placebos

     Thomas Edison believed there were fifteen little people living inside his head.
     True, he lived in the mystical age of Mesmer, when people were "taken by fits," and seances were considered by many to be serious endeavors, and the scientific method--which is the chief characteristic of modernity--did not yet have overarching influence.
     But Thomas Edison was someone with terrific brain power, a man whose 1,093 patents are responsible for the phonograph, telephone, incandescent light bulb, storage batteries, tape recorder, waterproof paint, cement kiln, conveyor belts, and many other forward-thinking inventions.  So we can't chalk him up as a complete kook when it comes to his idea that his mind was not completely his own.  He considered himself to be a composite of multiple beings.
     The idea of multiple personalities housed within one "person" doesn't have to belong to the realm of pathology.  It does require that we take a different view of ourselves.  We are all multiple personalities.  The one "personality" who stands at the foreground of the troop may get credit for a person's self-appointed identity, but it usually takes no more than a little nudge for another to come forward, elbowing out the rest to express anger, peevishness, childlike exhilaration, and uncharacteristic annoyance, or to do something "completely out of character"--getting us in trouble, making us ill, causing accidents, becoming seductive, turning into the life of the party, or producing something of stunning creativity.
     The theory of Healthy Multiplicity holds that many people can occupy one physical body.  What we call "a person" is instead considered a community of people housed in a physical being.  The idea of multiple personality disorder may stem from an understanding that some of us are capable of "channeling" the different personalities we encompass in ways that confuse--or, in the case of creative geniuses and mimes, e.g., Robin Williams--impress everyone else.  It may be a matter of cultural necessity that we project ourselves as singular, but we all know how easy it can be to slip out of our norm and become "other," by drinking too much alcohol, or suffering extreme stress, or missing sleep, or being in situations that trigger subpersonalities to the helm.  "The devil made me do it," we say, or, "I don't know what got into me."  Mozart reported that his symphonies wrote themselves, and he simply acted as a scribe.  He was driven by an irrepressible, inner other to give pen to the concerto, opera and orchestral scores that poured into his imagination.
     Carl Jung attempted to lend scientific credence to the idea of multiplicity with his theory of complexes.  He developed the Word Association Test to demonstrate that each of us is really a collection of semi-repressed personalities that superintend our actions, often in sequence, depending on the circumstances.  Jung used a galvanometer to measure the skin temperature of subjects in his experiments, and a stopwatch to measure the response time when they were asked to give quick, associative responses to a list of words.  Some words were highly charged for certain people, and not for others, but everyone was shown to have delayed responses and increased sweating and skin temperature.
     Jung's famous experiment became the basis for the lie detector, which is still in use today.  But "lie detector" is probably a misnomer.  Who, may I ask, is lying?  If each of us is a multiplicity, then the liar is really a sub-personality stepping into the foreground and telling its own truth.  "I'm pissed off," it may say, or "I ought to steal that wallet."
     When a placebo works, it's not because it has been given to the rational, superior, take-charge person who presents his best self to the doctor (and would disdain placebos outright), but because it's interacting with one of the subpersonalities--someone who has a lot of clout in the enactment of health within the physical body.  Placebos are given to the person's plant manager, or operational systems executive--to a foreman who works in the basement of the body where the pipes and thermostats are housed.  It doesn't matter if the scientifically oriented persona of the person doesn't believe in the treatment.  The sub-personalities don't care about science.  They need a tool to tweak a few nuts and bolts, or open energy channels, or turn off a flooding pipe, and the placebo is that tool.  The situation allows for the placebo to reach the proper mechanic, and when it works, the patient gets well.
     So, let's not pooh-pooh placebos.  Doctors used them all the time, whether they admit it or not--whether they know it or not.  The moment a patient enters the doctor's office, the stage is set for something to work.  Whether it's an outright placebo or a very toxic pharmaceutical hardly matters. The doctor's skill in conversing with the patient's subpersonalities is key, not the material treatment or substance administered.

1 comment:

  1. In the past year there was an interesting article in a journal that stated that many drugs that are currently approved would not be approved if taken through the FDA process again. The reason? Placebos have improved and they are a critical control in the drug approval process. This includes many popular psychotropics. - Dr. Strangelove