Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Placebo Effect...

In the past couple of months, I've gone back to taking a prescribed sleeping pill, a hypnotic. One of the side effects is a bitter taste in the mouth which usually begins within 20 minutes of taking the pill. I have begun to notice that it doesn't work consistently to put me to sleep. On the nights where I get the bitter taste in my mouth, where I'm consciously aware of it, I fall asleep easily. I taste the bitterness and I think, "OOOOO, the sleep is coming. Yaaaaaa!" And off to dreamland I go.

But there are nights where I don't get the bitter taste or I'm not aware of it, maybe because I'm reading something and I'm too absorbed in it to notice the change of taste in my mouth. On those nights, it seems as though the sleeping pill doesn't work. All this gets me thinking more deeply about the placebo effect.

I wonder if I was given a pill that didn't have any drug in it but that left me with a bitter taste in my mouth 20 minutes after taking it if I'd be more likely to fall asleep right away than without taking anything at all. My mind has made certain associations between the bitter taste and falling asleep. It seems likely that the two would correlate whether there was any active drug present in my system or not.

Doing some research on placebo effect, I came across this very interesting article. It's a bit long but worth reading. It will make you think twice about what your mind is capable of. A few excerpts:

"The truth is that the placebo effect is huge -- anywhere between 35 and 75 percent of patients benefit from taking a dummy pill in studies of new drugs -- so huge, in fact, that it should probably be put to conscious use in clinical practice, even if we do not entirely understand how it works."

"Doctors who deliberately prescribe placebos and patients who accept them are not unheard of, even now. Many of us, for example, enter into a tacit agreement to take a placebo when we ask for, and usually get, a prescription for antibiotics to treat a viral infection."

"Yet in the end it is also a bit of a gimmick. If you get too fixated on the ritual of swallowing a pill, you miss the larger meaning of the placebo effect. And the larger meaning has to do with a certain kind of empathic attention that a doctor -- some doctors -- give to patients. It has to do with faith and hope and a physician's capacity for marshaling those sentiments in the service of the sick. "The secret of the care of the patient," wrote Dr. Francis W. Peabody in a popular essay for doctors, "is in caring for the patient." It may also be the secret of the placebo."

--The Placebo Prescription, New York Times Magazine, January 09, 2000

This all leads me to my ongoing polemic about the illusion we have created in our own minds. How our desire for things to be true has little to do with their ultimate reality and more to do with our need for hope. When are we going to wake up from this dream and see things as they really are rather than how we'd like them to be?

tall penguin


Jessica said...

Funny how our brain works sometimes... just this weekend, Liam was coughing up a storm all night, and didn't seem able to settle and sleep. It was 3 o'clock in the morning, we were staying at a cousin's house, and didn't have any cough medicine with us. Digging in my purse, I found some Life Savers and gave him a cherry flavoured one, telling him it was cough medicine. Lo and behold, the coughing stopped for the rest of the night! Whether or not it was the candy coating his throat that enabled him to drift off, or the idea that it was medicine and he was better (or a combination of the two), I don't know but I really believe "mind over matter" played a part.

tall penguin said...

It's hard to say what made the difference. I do know though that children, by nature, are very susceptible to wishful thinking. It's the delight of being a child.

It is also what makes them very vulnerable to religious indoctrination or any ideas actually. Really makes parenting serious business. And why I don't have kids.

:) tall penguin