Alternative Medicine: Faith-healing

The second of three BBC2 documentaries on alternative medicines was shown this evening. Last week’s covered acupuncture, and I thought it had good and bad points. After describing the theories of acupuncturists, Professor Kathy Sykes1 conducted a controlled experiment into the pain-relieving benefits of acupuncture, and found positive results. I was impressed with the methodology and the scientific attitude, but at the time I thought the show wasn’t long enough to adequately explore the topic. Acupuncture claims to be able to heal pretty much everything, after all. The logical extension would, it turns out, have overlapped with this week’s show.

The acupuncture episode ended up with an actual effect, but this time the topic was faith healing. This included mass religious healings (in Norwich!) as well as ‘spiritual healers’ on the NHS. The first 10-15 minutes showed interviews with people who claimed to have been healed, as well as doctors who have seen beneficial effects. Prof. Sykes began to investigate the methods and theories behind the practice, but ran into something of a brick wall. The only explanations that could be given were of a mystical energy which were manipulated via unknown methods. She said that there is currently nothing in science to suggest this is true, but then headed to Arizona and a government-funded study which claims to have detected these energies. This was most entertaining.

She’s a physics professor, and her reaction to the gobbledygook she found was great to watch. She was told to place her finger onto a GDV camera (which I can’t find any references to outside of pseudoscientific energy fields) and details of the magnetic, electrical and ‘scatter gas’ emissions from her finger were then shown and it was judged that these consisted of the aforementioned ‘energies’. Prof. Sykes was somewhat incredulous at this, but then she was shown a software program which mapped her ‘aura portion’. This, she discovered, was built in conjunction with faith-healers who can see the aura visibly. Outside of the laboratory, she admitted that this had actually angered her, and with good reason. You can’t claim to be scientific if you assume the effect under investigation exists.

Having established that there was nothing to the theories, Prof. Sykes then began explaining what could be causing the beneficial effects, and this was by far the most interesting part of the show. I knew something about the placebo effect, but not the power it’s been shown to have in experiments. I knew that students will get drunk on water if told it’s alcoholic, and there was a similar experiment shown involving caffeine. Further to that were studies demonstrating that surgical procedures in which nothing is performed (for example: the chest is opened, the motions are acted out, but that’s all) have the same effect as actual operations. Even more than that, sufferers of Parkinson’s disease were shown to experience actual physiological changes due to placebo alone, and it was suggested that this could be key to the whole process. Parkinson’s is related to a lack of dopamine, and this was released under placebo tablets and relieved symptoms. Dopamine, however, is released in humans and animals during periods of expectation, so it’s suggested that dopamine could, via methods currently unknown, be triggering other parts of the brain to react when placebo appears to help with other types of disease. This last theory hasn’t been shown to be true, however.

It turns out that the placebo effect has some fascinating depth: four placebo tablets will have more effect than two; some colours work better than others (no details, sadly); the ritual surrounding the placebo – the perceived complexity of the procedure, I’d guess – has a large effect. Most important, however, is the attitude of the practitioner. It seems that somebody who appears confident and assures you that their treatment will help will in themselves contribute significantly to the effect2

The whole benefit of faith-healing was put down to placebo, as you’d expect, but the show raises fascinating questions. To what extent can the placebo effect help? Is suffering to an extent illusory? Could the placebo effect make somebody feel better, if they are in fact still degrading? Also interesting, but not ethically-testable, is the negative placebo effect – could people get ill simply by being told that they will?

You have to wonder, mind, if there’s a case for not making this information widely known. If you want to harness it in medicine, surely the best technique is to implement it without telling people? Of course, maybe that’s already happening…It’s the only morally-justifiable conspiracy I’ve ever heard 🙂

Next week’s show confronts my favourite of all the alternative medicines: homeopathy. The craziness is actually quite inspired – I don’t think I could come up with anything as contrary to reality if you asked me! Although the final result is a given, it’ll be interesting to see the approach the show takes.

  1. recognisable from BBC4’s Mind Games, which I didn’t realise for aaaaages []
  2. I knew somebody who suffered from glandular fever at secondary school, and afterwards began to exhibit the signs of M.E, which is apparently quite common. She put her recovery entirely down to a new doctor who assured her that he was going to ‘get her better’ – she vividly remembered the conversation. Not scientific, but interesting 🙂 []