Placebo effect beats God, Prozac
By Mark Morford, SF Gate Columnist
Wednesday, April 28, 2010
This is the story of three drugs. Except one is not really a drug at all and is merely an illusion, a nifty construct, an intense belief that it might be a drug, even though, as mentioned, it is very much not. We just think it is. Isn’t that strange? Wonderful? Both?
The three drugs — which, sorry, are not so much drugs as they are modes of comprehending our own weird little minds, needs and inherent psychoses — are presented here by way of two recent studies that essentially reinforce what similar studies have been declaring for years and decades and, in the second case, since the ancient mystics suckled wild plants in the forest, licked God, found the source of the soul, and said, you know, holy f–.
Let’s lay it out: According to a major new overview study, all of America’s beloved wonderdrug antidepressants — all the Prozacs, Paxils, Effexors, Zolofts of the world — are essentially useless and don’t really work worth a damn.
Wait, that’s not quite right. They can sort of work just fine, help millions of people and have enjoyed tremendous success. But there’s a huge caveat: Statistically speaking, all these drugs work no better — and often are far worse for you — than sugar pills, fake pills, placebos that patients only think are powerful, mind-altering compounds, but which in fact are no more chemically miraculous than a peppermint Altoid.
Have you heard this before? Of course you have. The placebo effect has been known for years. Decades. Forever. It’s one of those hotly controversial, yet irrefutable medical/psychological wonders that we don’t have the slightest clue how to unravel, much less leverage. And hence, it just freaks us the hell out.
Nevertheless, the recent findings, the result of one of the most comprehensive studies in recent years, are still nothing short of astounding. A sugar pill works as well as a hit of Prozac, if the patient believes she’s getting the latter? It’s just all sorts of confounding, in how it reveals how the power of the mind is still, to this day, barely understood, untapped, wildly feral, far more brightly powerful than we know what to do with.
It also reveals just how deeply invested massive drug companies are in convincing everyone they can “cure” depression with powerful, often dangerous chemical alternatives, how fearful doctors are of refuting this, how reluctant patients are to understand the difference, and how, above all else, nothing is as it seems.
Problem is, it ain’t just the pills. The placebo effect — hereby defined as the sheer force of will and belief, of the mind’s (and heart’s) ability to heal and nurture itself sans external assistance — applies to all sorts of constructs in our tortured modern world.
Organized religion? Hell yes. Is your life flawed and painful? Are you guilt-ridden and terrified of the world’s swarm of demons and daggers? Of course you are, sinner. Here, have a giant, unknowable deity. Give to it all your faith, hope, belief, money, angst, sexual shame. Believe in it wholly and without doubt, to the point where you lose a sense of yourself and your true divine source, forever and ever, amen.
There now. Feel better? Are miracles starting to happen in your life? Do you feel uplifted and joyful? Are you healed? It’s the power of Jesus! It’s God in your life! It’s because you have blind faith! No no no, it’s not you, silly. Even though, in fact, it totally is. Shhh.
Of course, what we call the power of faith is just the power of the mind, soul, the Self, rather harshly rerouted through some external conduit that relieves us from having to figure s–t out for ourselves. After all, it’s just much easier to give it all over to the god, the pill, the product, than it is to delve deep into one’s own dark and inscrutable psyche. Same as it ever was.
But whatever works, right? If expensive pills genuinely help millions, who’s to argue? If devout belief gives you stability and a sense of place, what’s wrong with that? It’s all well and good… until you factor in the cost.
The organized religion racket rakes in hundreds of billions a year, and requires a massive toll in guilt, shame, dogma, homophobia, war, pedophilia and sexual hysteria. The antidepressant market runs $10 billion a year and makes millions into casual addicts, convincing many they are powerless to get better without chemical assistance.
The placebo market is, at last check, absolutely free. Man, they just hate that.
Behold, study number two. This research reveals another time-honored truth that science is only now beginning to barely get a grip on, albeit nervously, suspiciously. Few want to claim it or ponder what it might mean to how we define illness, consciousness, God, the sanctity of the DSM-IV.
This research reveals, once again for the millionth time, that various psychedelics like MDMA, LSD and psilocybin really do, in fact, have a rather stunningly helpful — and often permanent — effect on the health and well-being of numerous patients, almost universally and without fail.
(Did you hear that? That’s the sound of a million mystics and healers, teachers and gurus throughout history, sighing and rolling their eyes).
Of these drugs’ power to dance and frolic with the brain’s synapses, there is absolutely no doubt. This is no placebo effect. This is no sheer force of will. Psilocybin, for one, is an E-ticket to a shifting dimension, a dance on the blurrier edges of definitive reality. Ecstasy is a widening out, a warming up, an opening into the cold, cold heart of the human species.
Patients who get to dabble with these fine plants and chemicals are reporting astonishingly positive, almost impossibly curative reactions. Lives are forever altered. Ideas of the soul, heart, human connection forever reset and restored. Possibilities expand, PTSD contracts, hearts open, fear and inhibition dissolve. Love expands. And man, the PTB hate that, too.
Do you know why? Two reasons: One: No one holds the patent to these drugs. No one company stands to rake in billions if, say, MDMA is somehow decriminalized. Two: Science loves reliable data, anchor points, the flawed sturdiness of the scientific method. But when it comes to hallucinogens and psychotropics, it’s all just a delightful, slippery mess. The swim and swirl of consciousness, it would appear, just refuses to be pinned down.
The grand upshot: We are but infants. We hammer and prod at the brain, the self, inundate it with chemicals and blast it with terminology to try and get it to behave and respond in somewhat predictable ways. And yet, the ancient plants, the mystical connections they offer to that original source seem to prove one irrefutable point: We still have a long, long way to go to get back to where we started.