In my research on Joseph of Copertino, I came to see the famous wonder-worker as a type of performance artist. The friar’s success depended in part on a receptive audience, and the right theatrical paraphernalia. But what made it all happen was belief. The secret is to intensify belief, fire up imagination, -- above all, sharpen the expectation of the unlikely. In facts, experiments in parapsychology have repeatedly shown that belief in ESP or psychokinesis is associated with psychic ability.
In the December 2016 issue of National Geographic, the lead article was titled “Mind Over Matter”. Author Erik Vance cites research on placebos, which also prove the healing power of belief or faith. Absolute trust, especially in the Madonna, was a major factor in Joseph’s psychology. In fact, trust, or belief, may for us all point to a healing potential.
Placebos play a big part in drug testing today, and much of the time, as with anti-depressants, there is virtually no difference in effectiveness between anti-depressant drugs and chemically inert placebos.
The placebo has the overwhelming sanction of science. And yet it is a mystery to science. How could something so intangible and hard to quantify as a belief – a mere mental construct -- be so fertile in producing results? Placebos frankly suggest the idea of magic. How embarrassing!
Scientists who study the placebo seem a bit shy about the mental power of the phenomenon. Beliefs trigger expectations that trigger healing responses via certain brain processes, etc. However, what happens in the brain is initiated by the mind. Expectation itself is a mental state.. The root of this mysterious potential is clearly coming from our unknown inner selves.
The most famous placebo healing of Mr. Wright’s lymphosarcoma is as shocking a display of the life-and-death giving power of belief as one could imagine. In 1957, Dr. West’s patient had three months to live, and Wright begged for a chance to try a “miracle” cancer drug that was in the news at that time, Krebiozen.
What happened next was truly extraordinary.
Wright took the Krebiozen and, amazingly, the doctor states that the “tumor masses had melted like snowballs on a hot stove”. In a short time, restored to health, Wright left the hospital and for two months enjoyed life, indulging his hobby of flying planes. He then read reports damning Krebiozen as a sham drug, and lost his faith. The cancer returned and he was back at death’s door. Dr. West persuaded his patient to try a purer version of the drug. Wright, believing it would work, took the “drug”—it was distilled water—and again the tumors melted away and he went back to flying and enjoying his life. But after a couple of months once more he learned that the AMA pronounced Krebiozen a worthless drug. In a short time, Mr. Wright was dead. His doctor had tried to persuade him it was his own self-healing powers that restored him. Wright’s inability to accept and believe that story cost him his life. Strangely enough, it was the true story.
Wright’s theater of healing belief was too narrow, too constricted. He couldn’t imagine that the healing miracle lay within himself. He needed to believe the cause came from outside, a drug company or some higher power. The National Geographic article reminds us that all over the world we still have healing shrines and pilgrimages that rely on dance, symbols, costumes, scripts and narratives to transport believers mentally to a space where the impossible becomes possible. It describes modern pilgrimages to the Black Madonna of Altotting, Germany and to the shrine of St. Catherine in Siena, to the Ashanika people of Peru who inhale vapors from boiled herbs in their healing rituals, and to Navaho shamans who carry on their ancient healing traditions in 21st century Arizona.
So there are still traditions that work with the healing power of belief, expectation and imagination. The curious power we call belief turns up in the scientific world and is called by a Latin name, placebo—“I shall please”. Belief is dramatically enhanced if, say, a physician rather than a nurse ministers the placebo. Groups of people at shrines, perhaps with cast away crutches as stage props, along with group chanting, fondling relics and medals of all sorts, enhance belief and expectation. The healing power of belief, expectation, and imagination is alive but not all that well. The truth is that we’re too educated to appreciate the healing potential of our own minds. Most of us have forgotten the traditions and folk beliefs that help us connect with our deeper selves. All we know is relentlessly under the control of our corporate overlords.
We’re also at the mercy of metaphysical trolls. A good article on placebos appeared in the NY times on October 13, 1998. The article was headlined: “New studies explore the brain’s triumph over reality.” But this blatantly misses the point of the placebo phenomenon. The story is about the mind’s triumph over reality. Beliefs, expectations are mental occurrences, not brain occurrences. Belief and brain state correlate; there is relationship, not identity. National Geographic got it right. It’s mind over matter, sometimes; even, sometimes, imagination over reality.