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Placebos, Prayer, and Pain Relief

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The belief that a divine being could be called upon to assist with one's health needs is not new. Also aged is the assertion of relieving symptoms with the idea of treatment rather than actual treatment. Scientists have been diligently researching both ideas with the help of positron emission tomography (PET), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and electroencephalograph (EEG) tests. The conclusions spell promise for placebos, but doom for deities.

Placebos have been found to have more than just a relieving effect. Some chronic pain patients can be trained to provide their own viable, lasting treatment. Too, how well a patient does with placebos, thought by the patient to be anti-depressants, might be a marker for how well they would do with the real deal.

While the existence of a higher power is in the heart of the believer, scientists have concluded there is no region of the brain specifically designed for heavenly communication. Researchers scanned the brains of 15 cloistered Carmelite nuns who were asked to recall their most heightened divine connection. The researchers observed as over a dozen areas of the nuns' brains were activated all at once — most notably, the caudate nucleus, the part of the brain associated with joy and love. The nuns did not submit to scans while in the process of achieving spiritual oneness, saying, "God cannot be summoned at will."

A devout agnostic, I met these results with a kind of "told you" attitude. I've many times witnessed the power of mind over matter when administering dummy pills to my mother and my children whenever the medicinal well ran dry in destitute times. Despite my mother's fervent skyward pleas, thy kingdom come never came to my house, leaving me with nothing more than a cup of sugar and an idea. We are not hard-wired to a celestial throne and the research proves it.

We are, however, wholly capable of something right nice — an ability almost lost in a cloud of spiritual vs. medical debate and a dispute over terms. The means by which a patient can learn to harness their own brainpower to relieve their suffering is scientifically proven. Does it really matter, then, what the individual sufferer calls this process or to whom they attribute the power? The parts of the brain activating those regions responsible for relieving pain and creating a sense of serenity are, in fact, activated by the person hosting said brain. Scientists rightly attribute the ability to the person and reasonably expect the person to take credit for what they've accomplished.

The wonder of realizing long sought after relief is an almost spiritual experience, and is a spiritual experience for many. It is so powerful a feeling that, at first, it appears to defy explanation. This is no work of man, many would assert. Even with an understanding of the brain's process, some who have harnessed this inner control still feel the need to reach outside themselves for explanation. It seems a simple enough concept: Feed yourself when you are hungry and the pangs will go away. I don't get the need to enshrine the grocer. But I'm not my mother.

A devout Catholic, science-fiction fan, and horribly butchered breast cancer survivor of the early 70s, my mother believed in the powers of God and the promise of technology, but she lived with the only reality she had experienced: pain. Her suffering subsided only slightly with pharmaceuticals, which also robbed her of coherent cognitive function. Out went the baby with the bath water, she would say. Placebos provided her with outright relief and her faculties didn't suffer in the process. In fact, it was this alertness that had her believing more was at play than just her medicine — or what she thought was medicine. She described the relief as "magical."

My mother wanted so much to believe in her doctors. Failing that, she turned to God and the future. Before her arm became atrophied from lymphedema (a common condition following breast cancer surgery of the early 70s), she used her once mastered calligraphy skills to pen her favorite quotes and hung them conspicuously in our home.

In Profiles of The Future, English physicist and science fiction author, Sir Arthur C. Clarke wrote, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." In Toward the Future, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin wrote, “The day will come when, after harnessing the ether, the winds, the tides, gravitation, we shall harness for God the energies of love. And, on that day, for the second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.”

Advanced technology has proven she did harness the energies of love and created her own magic. The part I played was insignificant, as is the part she was just sure God had played, but in terms of health, well-being, and a sense of peaceful relief, it's no skin off my nose if she wanted to believe it was God. The beauty of science is that it is discovering fire everyday. The beauty of being human, scientist and layman alike, is that we can call that fire anything we want — relief, love, magic — and it's no one's business but our own.

Rest in peace, Mom. God knows you deserve it.

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About Diana Hartman

Diana is a USMC (ret.) spouse, mother of three and a Wichita, Kansas native. She is back in the United States after 10 years in Germany. She is a contributing author to Holiday Writes. She hates liver & motivational speakers. She loves science & naps.
  • Pat O’Connor

    Hi Diane

    Your article was poignant, sensitive and food for nourishment.

    As a person with hereditary lymphedema for almost 53 years and multiple lymphomas for 11 years, I have asked many of the same questions, both in terms of placebos versus “real” treatment, and in the reality of the existence of God.

    In one of my blogs, I wrote not long ago
    “who is more blessed, the saint or the agnostic”

    Pain rapes the soul and destroys the spirit. It causes you to cry for the welcoming arms of death so you can ecscape it’s overwhelming power. It leaves your soul naked and bare

    Are we more logical to embrace death or to continue to struggle in a futile and wretched battle that we will eventually loose anyway.

    Which is the more noble? Which requires more courage…which is the stronger spirit?

    Cancer, even late stage lymphedema which in itself can be terminal, strips you of the quaint and often superficial thoughts…it tears away everything and leaves you with questions that people have set answers for or are afraid for you to ask because of the meaninglessness of their own souls.

    Life reinforces my agnosticism; it struggles against the philosophical/scientific necessity of an infinate personal God existing who can make order out of our chaos.

    Hmmm..or is it the other way around?