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Science teaches us that we must see in order to believe,
but we also must believe in order to see.”
– Dr. Bernie Siegel (1986)

Every day over the course of her childhood, Lisa remembers her mother telling her about everything she did wrong. She was a “bad kid,” incapable of doing anything right in her mother’s eyes. If she applied herself well the best that could be hoped for was that she “wouldn’t screw things up too bad.” As an adult, that belief is so well engrained into her personality it’s become a part of who she is. Yet this belief isn’t the least bit true. She was never a bad kid. In fact, Lisa could have been considered a very bright and capable child. The problem wasn’t that she was a screwed up kid. The problem was she had a stressed out mother who unloaded her anger and frustrations on her child.

The most harmful threat to human beings is not something that can be touched or easily measured. It’s belief – and misguided belief can wreak havoc in our lives. As the basic creed in social science goes: Something is real if it is real in its consequences. Reality matters not when it comes to the world of harmful beliefs. Make-believe causes just as much damage as actual events do.

Take, for instance, a child who drags her parents out of bed at night, begging their help in performing an exorcism on the monster under her bed. She’s quite convinced that it’s under there, and she’s also quite convinced that as soon as she closes an eye, falls drowsy, or lets her guard down, that it will leap out to gobble her alive. This imaginary beast can be a source of enormous torment to a small child, which is why she calls upon her parents for assistance.

But before you begin the search for an old priest, a young priest, and some fairly potent holy water, you usually walk the child into their room, turn on the lights, and show them that no monster inhabits their resting place. Does that work? Sometimes, until the lights go off and the monster suddenly reappears, emerged from whatever hiding spot it had found. Back again to torment your little girl, waiting for the opportune time to snatch her from the night without leaving so much as a trace. Now what?

Are such monsters under the bed real? Of course not. The beast is little more than a figment of her overactive childhood imagination. To fill the void left by the absence of sensory input in the dark, her mind dreams up an imagined nightmare. How about the fear, the stress, the tears, the pleas for help, the cries of pain, and the torment…are those real? Absolutely. They are every bit as real and powerful to a child as an actual trauma would be. A false belief is creating very real pain for your child, and is also leading to turmoil in your own life. A false belief can have very real consequences.

As adults, we’d like to believe that we’ve grown out of such foolishness. We certainly pretend that we aren’t such slaves to imaginary thoughts. But in fact, as people grow, their imaginary monsters don’t go away, they only become more sophisticated than ever, and masquerade themselves as truth more cleverly than before. Whether or not they have any merit, our beliefs are our reality and can become every bit as deadly and destructive as actual threats.

The Plecebo Effect & What It teaches us about the power of belief

The power of belief to alter reality isn’t just a hypothetical theory or something subject to the whimsical fantasies of children. It is documented over and over again through scientific study. (Lipton, 2005; Benedetti, 2008; Erdmann, 2008; Niemi, 2009)

The most well-known example is seen in the placebo effect. 50% of the Drs in the US regularly prescribe placebos, according to a study by the National Institute of Health. (Time. 11-10-2008. p. 18) and for good reason. Placebo pills work, on average, about 30-40 percent of the time to treat a person’s illness. It doesn’t matter what that illness is. The belief that a treatment will work brings about physiological changes in the body that can treat the illness as well as an actual drug. (Siegel, 1986) “When you just suggest that the treatment is happening, you’re immune system responds as if it were actually happening,” says Dr. Philip Shenefelt, a dermatologist in Tampa, Florida. (Friedman, 2010)

A hospital patient who is screaming out in pain and begging for morphine quiets down and calmly falls asleep after receiving his injection. Only it wasn’t any sort of painkillers he received, it was a saline injection. A placebo. (Begley, 2008) “It all boils down to expectation,” states neuroscientist Jeanne Erdmann. “If you expect pain to diminish, the brain releases natural painkillers. If you expect pain to get worse, the brain shuts off the processes that provide pain relief. Somehow, anticipation trips the same neural wires as actual treatment does.” (Erdmann, 2008, P. 26)

In another example, pregnant women who were complaining of nausea were administered what they thought was a wonderful new anti-nausea drug. In fact, however, they were given Ipecac syrup, something you may know is used to induce vomiting. Despite this contradiction, the women were relieved of their nausea. Their belief about the drug actually counteracted the drugs chemical agents! (Wolf, 1950) Other patients who underwent a fake knee surgery reported better pain reduction than those who had actual orthoscopy. (Begley, 3-17-2008; Wiseman, 2010)

A May 2007 paper in the journal Current Allergy Asthma Reports concluded that the placebo effect was the largest component of any allergy treatment. Another review of 29 different clinical trials found that placebo medications were just as effective as the antidepressant pasoxetine (sold as Paxil) in treating moderate to severe depression. Yet another meta-analysis of 32 different studies found that around 20% of migraine sufferers saw a 50% reduction in attacks by talking a placebo. The placebo effect has also been shown to help cure alcohol dependence. (Rubin, 12-11-2008) As Dr. Dan Ariely explains, “It’s not that medicines are crummy, but the placebo effect is so powerful.” (Begley, 2008, p. 46)

It’s been found that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), a type of psychological therapy, works as well in treating chronic pain as surgical procedures or medications. (Baar, 2008) CBT also shows better results than pharmaceuticals for many ailments such as Crohn’s disease, irritable bowel syndrome, and other gastro-intestinal disorders. (Andrews, 12-1-2008) While CBT is a tested and proven therapeutic technique a opposed to a placebo, it nonetheless illustrates the power of the mind to alter our physical reality. While CBT is a tested and proven therapeutic technique as opposed to a placebo, it nonetheless illustrates the power of the mind to alter our physical reality.

The Nocebo Effect

Actual illnesses in childhood can also develop into psychosomatic symptoms in adulthood. For instance, a man who received special treatment and coddling whenever he had an asthma attack may find that he gets wheezy whenever he feels vulnerable or when facing a task he wanted to avoid. The inbuilt associations formed bring on the attack. “These patients often view themselves as sick, and it’s hard to convince them that their illness is less intrusive and pervasive than they think,” says Harold L. Pass, a psychologist at Stony Brook University in New York. He adds: “What began as a physiological illness now has a psychological component.” (Goldman, 2010)

This principle of the mind creating pain (referred to as the nocebo effect) doesn’t get as much attention as the placebo effect, but it’s every bit as powerful and perhaps even more prevalent, if for no other reason than that suggested problems are so much easier to come by than suggested cures. “The brain is so powerful that it really can convince itself of illness,” says Caroline Goldmacher-kern, a New York based psychotherapist who specializes in anxiety disorders. “You know something is wrong because you believe what you’re thinking, and what you’re thinking is what you perceive to be feeling.” (Pearlman, 2010, p. 92) Just as beliefs can heal, they can also harm.

Believe It To Be So: The Power Of Belief In Action

These principles are best summed up with the story of one cancer patient: “Mr. Wright” (not his actual name) was dying from cancer of the lymph nodes. Tumors the size of an orange had invaded his neck, groin, chest and abdomen, and his doctors had exhausted all available treatments. Yet he remained confident that a new anticancer drug called krebiozen could cure him. Mr. Wright was bedridden and fighting for each breath when he received his first injection, according to the medical report by psychologist Bruno Klopfer of the University of California, entitled “Psychological Variables in Human Cancer.”

Krebiozen would seem to have been a miracle cure. Three days later, the patient was cheerfully ambling around the unit, joking with the nurses. His tumors had shrunk by half, and after 10 more days of treatment he had recovered enough to be discharged from the hospital. Other patients receiving the same drug showed no improvement.

Over the next two months he enjoyed a remission, until something went wrong. After reading reports that questioned the efficacy of the treatment, he suffered a relapse. Back in the hospital, doctors decided to lie to him, telling him a new, more potent form of the drug had been shown to be doubly effective. They administered a placebo instead. He improved even more than the first time, and walked out of the hospital symptom free. He was healthy until tow months later, when he read a report that krebiozen was worthless. He died within days.

This story is not meant to suggest that every cancer will go away merely by thinking happy thoughts. We’re creatures both physical and psychological, and although the psychological is powerful, it’s not ALL-powerful. But it DOES show the power that mind has over the body, and just as importantly, how precisely our outcomes in life can track our beliefs.

Effects and consequences: How belief impacts our life

It’s not just pills and fake treatments that tap into the power of beliefs. What we believe (or what other persuade us to believe) will lead to very real effects and consequences throughout virtually every aspect of our lives.

Ron Anbar, a pediatric pulmonologist in Syracuse, describes how he once watched a patient with severe milk allergies bring on an asthma attack simply by imagining the smell of cheeseburgers. Now president elect of the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis, he says: “If you asked me earlier if I thought people could think their way in and out of disease, I would say not. But you can train your mind to control a whole lot.” (Friedman, 2010)

Experiments show that people exposed to fake poison ivy develop genuine rashes, and those given caffeine-free coffee nonetheless become more alert, both in self-reports and on measured tests. (Wiseman, 2010) Itch can also be brought on by the power of suggestions, and even reading about itches may be enough to cause the sensation. (Sanders, 2008) It’s possible you feel a bit itchy at this very moment, and if we were to rewrite this sentence in a more suggestive way, then you might really feel it.

Researchers in another study gave people tonic water and told them it was alcohol. Those participants behaved as though they were intoxicated; slurring speech, stumbling, and showing legitimate motor impairment. Meanwhile, those who were given actual alcohol to drink but believed it was tonic water behaved normally, showing little or no effects from the toxin, and actually outperformed their tonic water counterparts. (Lang et al., 1975)

Another experiment monitored 2 groups of hotel housekeepers with roughly the same workload and lifestyle habits. One group was made constantly aware of how many calories it burned simply by doing labor intensive work – thus implanting the idea that ‘Wow, my job involves a lot of exercise.’ Over time this group (and not the other group) saw improvement in both body mass index and blood pressure, even though it was doing nothing differently. (Wiseman, 2010) As the aforementioned author concludes, “By reminding the attendants of the amount o exercise that they were getting on a daily basis, the researchers altered the attendants’ beliefs about themselves, and their bodies responded to make these beliefs a reality.

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