Empathy + Placebo = Healing?

By Neuroskeptic | September 8, 2013 6:58 pm

Psychotherapy, voodoo, and complementary/alternative medicine (CAM) are all cut from the same cloth; they are ‘healing methods’ that relieve symptoms because they provide two key things: empathy and the placebo effect (E&P).

That’s according to Belgian physicians Mommaerts and Devroey in a new paper: From “Does it work?” to “What is it?”

They say that, given that E&P are a powerful psychological force, it makes little sense to ask of any particular CAM, “Does it work?”.  So long as it provides non-specific E&P, just about any intervention will work – there is nothing surprising about the fact that any particular CAM does.

We can ask whether the specific aspects of the treatment do anything, but the answer here is almost always “no”, and often “obviously not”, as in the case of homeopathy.

Even in psychotherapy, it is debatable whether any therapy is specifically effective although many have prima facie plausible theories behind them.

E&P is often the only thing people need. But it can be hard to find it in mainstream medicine. The authors write:

CAM represents a failing of scientific medicine, in that CAM seeks to address patients’ needs that are lost in the technologically focused interactions of modern medicine. CAM represents many patients’ search for empathy.

Perhaps there’s a solution: more empathy in mainstream medicine, or in general, some kind of ‘pure’ E&P that doesn’t rely on unscientific foundations? This is what the authors suggest.

They even discuss the possibility of a future “profoundly rational EP treatment”.

But I have to wonder, could this work? Can empathy and hope (placebo) ever be purely rational, or are they only able to enter the human mind by stealth, not through the front door?

To put it another way, if you set up shop and sold sessions of Empathy and Placebo, would anyone pay for it? Wouldn’t that lack the romance that makes the whole thing work…?

Interestingly, Jean-Luc Mommaerts is himself in the healing business. Here’s his vehicle for E&P: Aurelis® (“AUtosuggestion RELaxation Inner Strength”) product.

ResearchBlogging.orgJean-Luc Mommaerts, & Dirk Devroey (2013). From “Does it work?” to “What is it?”: Implications for Voodoo, Psychotherapy, Pop-Psychology, Regular, and Alternative Medicine Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, 56 (2) DOI: 10.1353/pbm.2013.0015

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About Neuroskeptic

Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.

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