By Jeremy, an Ex-Christian Scientist group editor/writer.
If you spend any amount of time in or around Christian Science and read the published output of the Christian Science Church (through its periodicals and its spokespeople), you’re bound to come across discussion of the placebo effect (otherwise known as placebo response). It is frequently used as a gateway to insert Christian Science into the discussion of more credible alternative health care modalities (some of which actually submit themselves to scientific study), or even the discussion of scientifically-based medical treatment itself.
Placebo and effect…
Placebo – a substance having no pharmacological effect but given merely to satisfy a patient who supposes it to be a medicine.1
WebMD offers a good explanation of the placebo effect:
“Sometimes a person can have a response to a placebo. The response can be positive or negative. For instance, the person’s symptoms may improve. Or the person may have what appears to be side effects from the treatment. These responses are known as the ‘placebo effect.'”2
Clinical study of the placebo effect focuses on the mind-body relationship. A common theory postulates that a person’s expectations play a large part in the effects of the placebo effect. In other words, if a person expects a pill to do something, the body’s own chemistry may in fact cause a desired effect–even if pharmacologically it is doing nothing. WebMD goes on to cite a study in which participants were given a placebo and told it was a stimulant. The subjects’ blood pressure actually increased, and their pulse rates accelerated. When the exact same pill was administered, but the participants were told that it would help them to sleep (the opposite effect), they experienced that effect.3 There is also a relationship between how strongly a person expects to have results and whether or not they actually experience any results.
…it’s possible that believing you are being healed causes the body to undergo physiological changes that promote healing.” 4
In a discussion of an experiment conducted in 2001 by Fabrizio Benedetti, Dr. Paul Offit, in his book Bad Faith: When Religious Belief Undermines Modern Medicine,5 tells of how, in his experiment, volunteer subjects were subjected to pain induced by the tightening of a blood-pressure arm-cuff. As the cuff tightened, pain increased, and the subjects’ observable stress-responses to the pain were measured and noted. The subjects were then given morphine and subjected to pain induced as the blood pressure cuff was tightened. This time, they were calm and free of pain, as expected. Next, the volunteers were injected with saline (which has no pain-reducing effect), thinking they were getting morphine, and subjected to pain induced by the blood pressure cuff. None of the volunteers experienced pain, something Benedetti did not expect. He theorized that the subjects’ bodies had learned to produce their own morphine-like drugs, known as endorphins. To prove his theory, Benedetti then injected the subjects with Naloxone (a drug that inhibits endorphins), instead of saline. He then subjected the volunteers to pain, and they did experience pain. It was not the subjects’ minds in and of themselves that blunted the pain when the saline was administered, it was what the mind made the body do–they had learned to produce their own pain-relieving chemicals. When the body’s ability to blunt the pain was neutralized, the subjects experienced pain.
As this experiment illustrates, the body can undergo significant physiological change in response to belief and/or expectation. It’s not some supernatural telekinetic, or other psychic power, but simply the body implementing its own existing defense mechanisms, under the direction of the mind: in this case, the release of endorphins. Studies like this have not been limited to the study of pain. It has been shown that individuals with Parkinsons disease can learn to release their own dopamine, which alleviates symptoms. Also, some people have been known to learn to enhance or suppress their own immune systems.6 Bottom-line, the body is capable of tremendous abilities to heal itself, and to suppress pain. It is possible that this is a large part of what is behind the placebo effect.
Christian Science ‘treatment’ and the placebo effect…
Christian Scientists readily seize on the placebo effect as proof of the validity of what Mary Baker Eddy wrote 120 or so years ago, namely that changing one’s thought can effect a cure. That is where any similarities end. Christian Scientists equate the supposed ‘Mind-cure’* of Christian Science ‘treatment’ to the apparent mind-cure of the placebo effect. However, while on the surface there may appear to be parallels, Christian Science and the placebo effect start from vastly different starting points, and an understanding of Christian Science theology illustrates that there really is no connection or parallel between the two–if you are acting in true accordance with the theology of Christian Science, that is.
In the utilization of Christian Science ‘treatment’ as it is stated in Eddy’s writings, the Christian Scientist starts out by denying any reality in what is termed mortal mind and the so-called ‘material body’. The supposed ‘real’ person is some sort of completely perfect, disease-free ‘spiritual idea’ of God–not what you see in the human body. Disease, the body–all of that is an ‘illusion’ to the Christian Scientist as they apply the theology of Christian Science. The Christian Scientist, in their ‘treatment’, starts from the standpoint that there is no illness in the first place; and there is no body, because none of this was created by God. To the Christian Scientist, if God didn’t create it, it is not real; and God did not create anything material (including the human body). This concept is diametrically opposite to the placebo effect, which is rooted in the mind-body connection–fully involving the very material human mind and body, and acknowledging the reality of the disease, with no interference from God in the equation at all.
Where Christian Scientists try to make the connection between Christian Science theology and the placebo effect, is the claim that the mind is doing the work, and that is “just like” Christian Science–you change your thought, you change your experience; in this case through your thought, you change the fact that you have a disease. While I firmly believe this is what is actually happening during a Christian Science ‘treatment’, that notion flies in the face of Christian Science theology that states that it is the realization of one’s supposed ‘connection’ to God, and the supposed ‘true reality’ that there is no material body, that supposedly effects the healing, or more accurately helps one to realize the ‘true reality’ of their situation–that there never was any disease. This is not the placebo effect in any way, shape, or form, as it is currently understood. The placebo effect starts with the premise that there is a medical condition that needs to be corrected, and the action of the human mind effects a change in the body. That is not where Christian Science starts, acts, and finishes.
Christian Scientists who claim that the placebo effect is a proof of the validity of Christian Science as a healing method are ignorant of what the placebo effect is understood to be. Ironically, they are also displaying an ignorance of the actual theology of their own religion.
Where Christian Science and the placebo effect do somewhat intersect (although this doesn’t happen in the realm of Christian Science theology), is that during Christian Science treatment, the mind has an expectation of a certain result, and it therefore can create conditions within the body that can sometimes effect a healing. So, in a sense, supposed ‘healing’ in Christian Science is a manifestation of the placebo effect. Christian Science treatment does have a ‘placebo effect’, but if you’re looking at it through the lens of Christian Science theology, it is not the placebo effect in action. While the Christian Scientist thinks it is God or an alignment of one’s thought to God that is having the healing effect, it is really just the good ol’ human mind and body, convincing itself to be well–which is largely what the placebo effect appears to be.
1 “Placebo” (definition). Dictionary.com. Dictionary.com, LLC. n.d. Web. 13 Sept 2015.
2 “What Is the Placebo Effect?” WebMD. WebMD, LLC. 2014. Web. 30 Sept 2015.
4 Offit, Paul A. “The Miracle Business.” Bad Faith: When Religious Belief Undermines Modern Medicine. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Basic Books. 2015. 142-143. Print.
* The word ‘Mind’ is capitalized here to indicate its association as one of the seven ‘synonyms’ of God, as stated by Mary Baker Eddy in Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures (p. 465 or 587). This and the other synonyms are a central element of Christian Science theology. ‘Mind’ (capital ‘M’) is not the so-called ‘human mind’ or consciousness, as we commonly think of it, that is resident in the brain and body. It is thought of as the ‘mind’ or thought-force, if you will, of God acting within and through people (who are considered to be ‘reflections’ of God).