Sic ‘Em, Brain

The young woman squirmed in her seat, responding to the hypnotist’s questions. She and I were students at North Carolina’s Governor’s School in the 1970s. In the lecture halls of Governor’s School, I first learned of quantum mechanics and the theory of general relativity. I also first experienced hypnotism.

Put under, the student was regaling us with her memories of being a sailor on an 18th century French ship. The hypnotist told us if he touched her arm with a piece of chalk, telling her it was a lit cigarette, a blister would form. But he didn’t do that with minors. So, instead, she spoke of sailing terms which she, when conscious, knew nothing about.

Aside from these semi-stage performance situations, hypnotism is medically accepted these days. When it is used for healing purposes, it is sometimes used in conjunction with the term “placebo.” For most medical doctors, placebo has long been a derogatory term. A pesky problem, really, interfering with what they were trying to accomplish—cures through drugs. Thankfully, this is no longer the (sole) view. Rather, the placebo is a window into how we work.

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Once upon a time, we thought placebos were a function of fooling yourself into thinking you were getting real medicine. Turns out, placebos work even when you know you’re taking a placebo. Nor is it “all in your mind”—placebos actually cause the body to go through the physical reactions that cause healing.  Even more interesting, after you’re been given a “real” medicine for a while, you can replace it with a placebo and your body will take up the slack, producing the healing results. This happens even if you know you’re replacing the medicine with a placebo. More good news: the placebo doesn’t produce the bad side effects associated with the “real” drug.

I’ve not read the explanation for this—most of my learning on the subject came from Jo Marchant’s book “Cure”—but it seems to me your body has been taught by the medicine how to fix the problem. Now it can do it on its own, thank you very much. Makes me wonder if placebo-takers in drug trials would be even more efficient if we told them how the real medicine works.

To take it one step further. Brain scans show mirror neurons in our brains light up whether we experience something or we watch someone else experience it. Empathy, to oversimplify. Combine this with the fact we use groups to establish the effects of medicines; one group gets real medicine, one placebo. We do this for scientific double-blind reasons. But what if empathy unlimited by physical proximity is at play? What if, in group trials, the placebo group is learning how to use the placebo via the group taking the real medicine?

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Here’s another thing we know: when I want to use my iPhone, I do not, in fact, formulate the thought to reach for the phone then instruct my muscles to perform it. It’s the exact opposite. I reach, then formulate the thought. Science says consciousness of the fact I’m going to reach arrives later in the equation. The mind/body has already begun the operation by the time consciousness catches up. This leads me to conclude thoughts are not the dominate brain function we’ve long believed them to be (see Descartes: I think, therefore I am). Instead, thoughts are simply one of the functions of the brain. We formulate the thought “reach for the phone” not because it’s needed to reach for the phone but because constructing thought is what that part of the brain does.

Maybe it’s like the old movie joke where one character on board the spaceship repeats whatever the computer says. Our brain thoughts are just translating what is happening in the brain into the language that part of the brain understands, i.e. thought.

In any event, the hierarchy we’ve formulated about the brain with functions stacked in a pyramid of importance—thought at the top—appears to be wrong. Rather than a hierarchy, the brain’s functions might be exactly like its shape: a rounded, interplaying whole. And much of what really, really matters in our brains has nothing to do with that part of our brain that believes itself in charge.

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One more thing: we may be wrong about there being a reality out there that we take in through our senses and interpret with our brains. Our reality is probably much more a function of our predictive brain (you’ve heard me talk about this before). As the brain sorts information, it establishes “givens” that are constantly reinforced by selecting only new sensory info that confirms that reality. My reality is not yours. Hence, our problem with eyewitness testimony; we literally see different things.

On the other hand, consciousness studies show we do share, with variations, certain limitations in our ability to see the external world. Spying quick changes, for example, is so difficult we literally do not see them (no telling what is going on in the outside world.) We, individually and as a species, are brain blind.

Who knows—maybe the brain is aware of its shortcomings and thus moves to fill in the blanks, constructing what is happening to the best of its ability. In any event, paradoxically, we are much more dependent on our brains than we formerly believed. It’s just not our thought brain.

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Why the hell am I writing so much about the brain when this is not, to state the obvious, my area of expertise? I want to cure my poison ivy. For the first time in years, it’s crawling all over my arms. Apparently, skin diseases are very susceptible to hypnotism. Or placebos. Or brain learning. Whatever, I’m waiting for the capabilities of my brain to stop this itching. If only I knew what they were.

The Brain
The Brain

consciousness, mirror neurons, predictive brain, theory of relativity

Comments (15)

  • Cool post!
    I personally believe that the placebo effect is behind homeopathy, the quasi-medical theory where “like cures like”. The body seems to anticipate that a sugar pill with some vague essence of your actual affliction somehow kicks your immune system into gear. I wish it worked for me. ..but others, like my wife and son, have a lot of success with it. There are indeed many mind vs matter mysteries we have yet to understand.

    • I was thinning of homeopathy when I was writing this, Ian. My sister and her children have gotten relief from it. It’s as if some part of the brain knows what needs to happen but it also needs a trigger to remind it. Wouldn’t it be fun if we figured some of these things out in our lifetime?

    • I was thinking of homeopathy when I was writing this, Ian. My sister and her children have gotten relief from it. It’s as if some part of the brain knows what needs to happen but it also needs a trigger to remind it. Wouldn’t it be fun if we figured some of these things out in our lifetime?

      • You should try to see a homeopathic doctor and see if they can solve your poison ivy problem! As I mentioned, my wife and son have had success with it, but it doesn’t seem to work as well for me. In the antithesis of your post, I seem to be able to thwart the placebo affect or whatever is happening. 😉

        • The “vinegar and baking soda” paste suggested by another commenter has eliminated the itching. And it seems to be drying it up a bit. But homeopathy might be an idea for longterm desensitizing. However, I have to disclose that when the hypnotist passed by me during the Governor’s School demonstration, he said, “You can tell immediately those who won’t be good subjects.” I wasn’t surprised—I could feel my skepticism, about him, about the process, I don’t know. Perhaps I’ve evolved . . . .

  • Sorry about the poison ivy. Let us know if your efforts succeed. Buti have seen other instances where a sympathetic response happens. Our retarded daughter gets very upset when some else us punished

  • I’m sorry to hear about the poison ivy. I enjoyed this post immensely … It would be interesting to poll socio-economic groups in terms of susceptibility to placebo.

    • 10 minutes of Plain yogurt—I will have to give that a try. I am currently wearing a paste of vinegar and baking soda, the suggestion of another commenter. It does keep it from itching, that’s the truth. It also flakes off so little white droplets follow me wherever I go. 🙂

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