If science were a man, I would marry him, even though I’d know of his imperfections. While science needs to be met with awareness and wisdom to prevent harm, science has brought us unprecedented progress. Modern psychology is unthinkable without scientific study; all licensed therapists are obliged to be informed by it. While science is far from delivering all the answers, I am personally committed to abstain from stating anything blatantly incompatible with science.
However, any professional mental or physical healthcare provider knows from experience that some interventions, some of the time, work like magic. Sometimes, we must admit, we do not even know what exact intervention brought about a big change. People take quantum leaps when we least expect it without us being able to put our finger on it.
Right timing seems to be partially responsible for breakthroughs and spontaneous recoveries – just as in magic tricks. Some of us in the healing professions are more intuitive than others regarding these moments. A word or glance can touch the mind of another so profoundly that it grows exponentially. An empathic, kind relationship can open the door to a hidden resource that heals what seemed broken beyond repair. Other times, a thought, belief, story, movie scene, song or poem can move a person beyond expectations. It may all be explainable, but this doesn’t make the leap any less wondrous and wonderful. I humbly acknowledge that psychological change is often due to or enhanced by an unplanned, not yet identified or taught action or interaction. I humbly acknowledge that I welcome a little bit of magic that unfolds in the “in-between” of client-therapist, patient-doctor, writer-reader and friend-friend.
The placebo effect is an example of such magic. As of now, nearly all people have heard about this psychological mechanism that is sometimes used to help people self-heal. We often test a new medication or psychological approach by comparing it to a placebo, which may be a medication-free pill or a holding group that does not get subjected to defined interventions. We know that people often change for the better when they believe they are being treated with a special remedy, a new scientifically proven technique or when they are given special attention from a so-perceived authority.
What boggles my mind is that placebos can also work when they are exposed as such. They are called “open label” placebos. I have just learned about it -- my mind is still spinning. A professor in creative writing, Robert Anthony Siegel, suffered from writer’s block and anxiety.1 He asked his friend to develop a placebo pill for his condition. They determined to design a yellow sugar capsule, packaged in an orange plastic container that comes with instructions and a high cost, that is more than $400,-. The idea was that it should resemble a very special, scientific treatment that causes high expectations. Even though Siegel knew that his capsule was not “for real,” he improved markedly and overcame his writer’s block. Belief in the placebo was therefore not of the essence. What?
His own explanation was that nature has made us not only beings of reason, but beings of imagination. What we imagine and want to imagine changes us profoundly and naturally all the time.
While I have living proof of this – I had only imagined that this placebo effect works and had my mind spinning -- I don’t believe that this explanation suffices. Siegel knew how to write before he took his “medication.” He not only had this skill, but also the expressed desire to overcome something he had clearly identified as problematic and quite the determination to do something about it. I think that we can imagine ourselves to lower anxiety and treat many symptoms, but that our magical change occurs in a context. We ought not to put all our eggs in one basket and believe in “The Secret” of attracting what we want. Instead, I think we ought to use all our potential: improve our skills, work on our will and determination, and soften our rigid minds within the context of caring relationships, with other people and with the All to which we belong.
The world is full of those who make empty promises about health and happiness. But really, “simplicity does not apply when it comes to happiness…Happiness is a complex path that becomes easy only as we walk it.”2
We all need a little miracle to leap forward. But only when we do our part and put the time and determination in as it relates to our imagined outcome, should we expect one.
With that said, as you are working on your skills in a committed way, why not design your own ritual that helps you focus on happiness? Maybe you too should design a personal, open label placebo. It may either initiate or enhance your commitment. Or, if you have difficulties letting go of something, maybe you should bury it. Literally. You could write a letter, make a meaningful statement or sing a song during your ritual.
Whenever you feel stuck, try to concentrate your effort in one form or the other. You might just stumble into a wind that blows you away....
NOTE: If this post in any way “spoke” to you, and you believe in might to others also, please consider sending them its link. Moreover, if you you’d like to read other articles I’ve written for Psychology Today, click here.
© 2017 Andrea F. Polard, PsyD. All Rights Reserved.