I was listening to Talk of the Nation the other day when I heard Ira Flato ask researcher Dr. Lee Berk whether or not Lee’s small study showing that laughter lowers stress hormones enough to reduce the incidence of heart attack might be explained by the placebo effect.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. How do you know it’s not a placebo effect?
Dr. BERK: I’m going to use a term here – that’s what was thrown at Norman Cousins all the time. The reason he was told he got well was because of the placebo effect. I can assure you, with this phraseology, that placebo is not nothing. In other words, there is – that the placebo is a real phenomena. It is your own intrinsic pharmacology that’s responding. If I believe in a particular perspective, I will have some sort of response.
I taught my students, how do you think the body hangs together if it doesn’t talk to itself? So indeed, placebo in – relative to our belief systems, biotranslates. And indeed, that’s the tile of Norman’s last work – book that he wrote, “Head First: The Biology of Hope and the Healing Power of the Human Spirit.” So your beliefs elicit some translatable biology.
Hmm… this is the second time that I’ve heard a researcher on NPR toss placebo around as if it were a valid form of medicine. The exact same response was given by an acupuncture researcher when he was asked about placebo. Just because placebo is an actual biological response triggered by belief, doesn’t mean that it’s a valid form of treatment. The placebo response is the minimum amount of improvement we can expect from the belief in a treatment’s abilities alone. It shouldn’t be a standard of anything other than whether something doesn’t work.
Or maybe I’m wrong. What do you think? Am I missing Dr. Berk’s point?