Wednesday, 19 February 2014


Mind and body
News to some

I have been watching BBC iPlayer on my computer, specifically last night's Horizon programme, 'The power of the placebo'.

As might be expected there was a lot of high-tech medical apparatus, and lots of talk about brains. If I were hyper-critical I could also see a strong underlying tendency to reduce and biologise almost every aspect of the discussion, even when it concerned the most explicitly psycho-social. No matter, though there were no great conceptual surprises the actual material was fascinating at every human level.

For conductivists, there was an interesting six-minute sequence half-way through (30 to 36 minutes) on the effect of placebo on dopamine release.


Fear and hope were acknowledged as active factors in treatment processes (I may have missed it but I do not think that the word nocebo raised its head – pity). But this is hardly sufficient, surely, without due attention to effects and mechanisms that are just as material, within and above the dimensions of just brain chemistry. Never mind, perhaps the most telling higher-order effect of all was mentioned, if only as an aside –
Scientists are beginning to wonder...
Now in a world of often reductionist medical research that is a considerable effect by any measure. Indeed, by the end of the programme it was being wondered how it could be that placebos can still work even if patients are explicitly told that they are receiving mere sugar pills. By way of explanation for this the hardly revolutionary suggestion was made that there is –
...something in the relationship between practitioner and patient that permits a placebo effect without deception.
Or, as it was put more succinctly (and rather naively) –
It's just about being nice.
It was also nice to see the puzzles of hypnosis and acupuncture also being tied into questions raised here.

All this may seem a long way round to get to where many may have started out in the first place, and one must not forget the (I hope well-known) caution about love and intelligent love. All the same, it is nice that some researchers – and medical documentary-makers – are setting off on the long road to a (dare I say it?) more holistic vision of medical practice round. It will be very nice to meet them on that road some day.

We could have been spared the breathlessly reverential tone of the commentary, not least because the doctors involved seemed nice people who treated their patients with humanity and decent respect.

Ultimately, 'science' means 'knowing'. There is such a lot to find out and so many ways of finding it. And the kind of knowing and finding out shown on programmes like Horizon, can write only part of the story – but they do make for entertaining popular-science television.


-- (2014) The power of the placebo (TV documentary), BBC2, 17 February
First shown in England on 17 February. It will stay available on line on BBC iPlayer for two weeks. Duration: one hour.

Three short clips to give a flavour:

You might find that BBC iPlayer is not available in your country. Sorry.

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