Over the past few years modern medicine has discovered a phenomenon called “placebo drift”. When scientists want to prove whether or not a drug is effective they compare it to a placebo which is a pill that doesn’t have any effect on the body – or does it? It turns out that these sugar pills seem to be increasing in strength, that is, patients in clinical trials are more responsive to fake pills than they were in the past. One possible explanation is conditioning reinforced by cultural norms, popular media and intense pharmaceutical advertising. We believe that just seeing a doctor and taking a pill is good for us, and this belief is so strong that it can improve depression or high blood pressure. Our faith in a pill, even a sugar pill, has the power to heal us.
In the Gospel according to Mark we find the blind man Bartimaeus who receives his sight. Jesus says to him, “Go, your faith has healed you”. Was the Nazarene on to something here? Certainly. Physicians have always recognized the healing power of suggestion and snake oil. When we believe wholeheartedly we will get better, we get better.
I suffer from allergies and asthma, and over the last few weeks the weather here in Buenos Aires has been getting cold and damp as we head deeper into autumn. This climate wreaks havoc on my respiratory system. Normally when I cough and wheeze I reach for my inhaler. Now I’ve been reaching for something else… prayer.
I don´t pretend that prayer should replace conventional medicine, but is faith in the ethical dilemma presented by Big Pharma and their clinical trials any safer? Jesus used spittle and dirt as his elements of healing. The big drug companies employ potentially lethal substances. Their primary objective is to make money and, therefore, the validity of their studies requires serious questioning.
Still, my training as a physician prejudices my reasoning here. I want the pill or puffer to make me better. It’s quick and easy, but it comes with a cost both monetary and biochemically.
Last night I awoke short of breath with an audible wheeze – classic acute asthma episode. So I prayed for the Lord to heal me. I prayed for Him to mobilize my body’s natural resources to stop the wheezing, coughing and shortness of breath. And it worked. I didn’t have to expose myself to any drug, and I saved myself some money to boot. God’s gifts are free.
Some might say that it was meditative relaxation that resolved my symptoms, but my faith in God is what allows me to even begin to believe that a prayer could halt an asthma attack. Meditation alone could help, but faith supercharges all things and might even give sight to the blind.
Side effects? None… except hopefully more trust in God.