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Faith Healing Shouldn't Work, But It Does

How to explain faith healing

In my previous post, I discussed whether antidepressants work mainly via suggestion, or the placebo effect. A placebo resembles faith healing. Yet faith healing is usually considered more a matter of belief in magic and the supernatural rather than confidence in the science of pharmacology.

From a scientific perspective, faith healing is unexplained, incomprehensible, and should not work. Yet it does work. The same is true of drug placebo effects, of course. Scientists recognize that there are placebo effects but have trouble accounting for them.

If you grew up in a superstitious country, chances are you experienced faith healing. Here are some examples from my own childhood in Ireland:

  • Children born after their father's death were understood to have the cure for thrush, a throat infection.
  • The seventh son of a seventh son had special powers, such as the ability to cure ringworm.
  • A cure for warts was inherited in some families.

Such traditional faith healers generally practiced for free, although strangers might wish to compensate them for their inconvenience with a small gift. Given that these services were genuinely free, and given that faith healers considered it immoral to demand payment for their special gift, they were widely used. What of the results?

The proof of the pudding
One year, my sisters and myself became infected with ringworm - a fungal infection that may be acquired from contact with farm animals. The man with the cure was a local bachelor farmer who could be encountered early in the morning harvesting mushrooms in our pasture. He welcomed us to his cottage and treated our ringworm by drawing a wedding ring across each lesion, making the sign of the cross. "They should be gone in a month," he said. Sure enough, all disappeared in about three weeks.

A close friend had a similar experience with warts. The faith healer knotted pieces of knitting wool above each wart, without touching it, while reciting a Hail Mary. The warts fell off within a month.

Most scientists cope with such evidence through simple skepticism. Perhaps the ostensible "cure" had no connection with the outcome. Without treatment, the time course of recovery would be exactly the same. It is certainly true that ringworm undergoes spontaneous healing. This is a seasonal phenomenon, however with the rash characteristically flourishing during wet, or humid, seasons and spontaneous recovery would have required several months, not a few weeks.

The girl had also had her warts for at least two years, so that their accidental recovery in a month was even more unlikely.

It is always hard to make much sense of such anecdotal phenomena to the satisfaction of scientists but faith healing seems to evoke a placebo effect, not unlike the use of drugs to treat people who are mildly depressed (and therefore experience no true pharmacological response to the medicine).

When people receive a prescription drug, such as Zoloft, or Paxil, they expect improvement and are fair game for a strong placebo response. Why should recipients of faith healing expect to get better? Several elements of the situation conspire to give patients the expectation that they will get better.

To begin with, there is the mumbo jumbo about which individuals acquire the gift to heal a specific malady. Notice how the pagan aspects of faith healing, or "superstition" are combined with Christianity so as to convey the impression that different supernatural forces are working on the problem. Social pressure might also be a factor as we feel pressure to believe in the cure after the manner of The Emperor's New Clothes.

If there is a history of successful outcomes, then people who consult the faith healer are likely to show up because they already have a positive expectation of cure, even if they consider themselves too sophisticated to be taken in by magical thinking.

By means unknown, faith healing is evidently capable of boosting immune function. This would explain why minor lesions clear up faster than would otherwise be the case. If placebos account for half of the effects of non surgical medicine (which may be too conservative) faith healing may be a trillion-dollar industry in the U.S..

Nigel Barber, Ph.D., is an evolutionary psychologist as well as the author of Why Parents Matter and The Science of Romance, among other books.

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