In my continued study of lectures on neuro-psychology, I came across another interesting observation. The lecturer observed that medical scientists have given little attention to the power of placebos (the “sugar pill” that has no active medicinal agents, but the patient believes is an actual medicine).
The neuro-psychologist found this to be odd because studies show that placebos work in 1/3 to 2/3 of cases of depression, pain, and even Parkinson’s disease cases. No other intervention with this degree of a “success” rate gets so little attention in medical circles.
The lecturer when on to say that when patients simply believe they will get better their brain finds a way to produce Serotonin (to offset depression), epinephrine (to offset pain), or Dopamine (to counter the effect of Parkinson’s). The implication is that faith/hope affects biology in profound ways, at least in a significant percentage of people with clinically significant struggles.
In the case of depression, the lecturer observed that the effects of placebo were actually stronger than many of the leading medications. I would surmise this was because the benefits were not offset by unpleasant side effects which often accompany psychotropic medications.
What does this mean? Again, I will say I do not believe it can tell us whether psychotropic medications are wise or unwise in a particular individual’s case. Even less do I believe it should cast dispersion on the use of pain medication or treatments for other major illnesses.
However, I do believe it says something significant about the power of faith in the treatment of physical and emotional struggles. In a day when emotions are frequently reduced to biology (i.e., brain chemistry), the ability of faith to influence both physical and emotional struggles is even more significant.
Now this research says nothing about “faith in God.” To the contrary, it attests to the power of even false-faith – faith in pills that do not have the medical capability of producing change. Simply put, faith in nothing (meaning faith which has nothing real for its object) can do something significant – even clinically significant.
So what does that mean? There are many directions we could go with that question. Honestly, there is enough to think about on this subject that I believe it could become its own book. But I will focus this blog post on the implications for counseling, particularly with emotional struggles.
One of the most powerful and effective things that a counselor (Christian or non-Christian) does is to give people a reason for hope when it feels like hope has faded. This research reveals that the presence or absence of hope has profound impact on the entire body, even at the neuro-chemical level.
Too often in our day I believe we are prone to get the chicken before the egg (I choose this metaphor because I believe this point can also work in reverse). We want to produce hope by tinkering with brain chemistry and ignore that giving someone a reason for hope alters their brain chemistry.
If this is true (and I believe science proves that it is), then one of the most significant questions a counselor can ask is, “In a broken world where bodies decay, friends fail, and social injustice abounds, what is capable of fueling hope?” We will either answer this question, or we will seek to medicate people out of fear/despair in a fatalistic world.
Again, here me say, I do not want to come across as being against psychotropic medications. I believe they can frequently be a wise and good means of alleviating suffering and pain.
My point is simply that, in a culture where many have reduced our emotions to their neurological expression, we need to recognize that faith in anything (even a plausible nothing) impacts our emotions and biology. If this is true, then Christians (if God is real and the Bible is true) should be able to have a significant impact on their emotions with the power of their faith.
If this post was beneficial for you, then considering reading other blogs from my “Favorite Posts on Counseling Theory” post which address other facets of this subject.