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Pain, Piety & The Placebo Effect

Can looking at the Virgin Mother relieve pain? Yes.

Can looking at a picture of the Virgin Mother relieve pain? Yes. The real question is: how does this happen? In a recently published study in the journal Pain, scientists (Wiech and colleagues) measured pain perception in two groups of people, devout practicing Catholics and professed atheists and agnostics, while they viewed an image of the Virgin Mary or the painting of Lady with an Ermine by Leonardo da Vinci. Devout Catholics reported feeling more peaceful and compassionate when gazing upon a picture of the Virgin Mother. The devout Catholics also perceived electrical pulses to their hand as being less painful when they looked at Mary than when they looked at the lady in the painting by da Vinci. In contrast, the atheists and agnostics derived no pain relief while viewing either picture. I would like to know whether atheists also benefit from aspirin, but that's a topic for another study. MRI scans demonstrated that the Catholics' pain relief was associated with greatly increased brain activity in a small area located on the bottom left of their right prefrontal cortex. In contrasts, the atheists and agnostics demonstrated no response in this brain area. There was already ample evidence to suggest that this brain region is involved in controlling our emotional response to sensory stimuli, such as pain. Perhaps this study has, in fact, now shown us the location of the placebo effect.

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Much has been written about the value of the placebo effect in the practice of medicine, but how this effect emerges and whether it can be controlled are issues that not yet understood. Essentially, scientists have analyzed the effect based on results of placebo-controlled studies of actual drugs on the brain or have compared only the effects of a placebo against the consequences of no treatment at all. Their findings have been intriguing, if still largely inconclusive. However, in one area of study that is not directly related to an actual treatment, the findings are more definitive. Numerous meta-analyses (which are later analyses of other researchers' data) have shown that only the perception of pain can be statistically demonstrated to be influenced by our minds, which scientists refer to as the emergent property of our brains. The impressive influence of our thoughts and expectations on how we experience pain is a true placebo effect.

Gary L. Wenk, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology & Neuroscience & Molecular Virology, Immunology and Medical Genetics at the Ohio State University.

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