Saturday, April 29, 2017

Suggestible You by Erik Vance

Journalist Erik Vance grew up in a Christian Science home. Though he no longer adheres to the religion, he believed that he experienced and heard many true stories of seemingly miraculous healing. The not miraculous, but still amazing source of these improvements in health may be in the brain. Vance recounts his search for answers in Suggestible You.

Our brains are hard at work predicting what will happen next; we are constantly expecting. What we perceive, and how our brain reacts is powerfully affected by expectation. Our expectations are shaped by suggestion. Though suggestion has many forms, at the heart of each is a story. It doesn’t have to be an actually true story; it just needs to be plausible and resonant.

One area where the power of suggestion is apparent is the placebo effect. Our bodies produce chemicals that can make us feel better, and sometimes it just takes a good suggestion to get it to do so. A placebo is such a suggestion. Placeboes contain no drugs that should be effective and can take many forms such as a pill, a shot, a fake surgery or even the presence of a professional who seems competent and caring. Placeboes work so well that on certain type of diseases that they are better that many treatments.

The effectiveness of placeboes presents a problem for medical researchers. How do you sort out the effect of a treatment from the placebo effect? Modern medical research requires testing to show that a treatment is more effective that a placebo. In the United States, the law requiring such studies was introduced by Senator Estes Kefauver, who readers of this blog may know from his anti-comic book hearings.

There is also a nocebo effect, essentially the brains response to a suggestion that makes us sick. Noceboes are connected to fear, so they are in a sense supercharged in comparison to placeboes.

Vance looks into other ways suggestions can affection or brains, particularly hypnosis and false memories. Science provides some answers for how these things work. Placeboes seem to be tied to chemicals released by the brain, though there seem to be several at work and they may represent only a few of the ways placeboes my work in our incredibly complex brains. Hypnosis is not the same as placebo and its workings remain mysterious.

Suggesting affects us in ways outside of health. Marketers are particularly interested in our suggestibility. Our expectations can influence the way food tastes and our perceptions of value.

Vance finds hope in the still incomplete science of how expectation affects our health. Those who are susceptible to placebo or hypnosis (not necessarily the same people) may have a host of options for coaxing out the healing powers of their own bodies. Better understanding of how these things work may help us make better treatments for those who are less susceptible. He envisions a day when placeboes and hypnotism may be treatments medical professionals apply in much the way the use drugs or surgeries.

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Vance, Erik. Suggestible You: The Curious Science of Your Brain’s Ability to Deceive, Transform, and Heal. Washington, DC: National Geographic, 2016.