On February 19, CBS Television News magazine, 60 Minutes, aired a segment that correspondent Lesley Stahl described as “explosive” in promos for the piece. The segment discussed the new scientific research that is creating a stir in the medical community.
Stahl interviewed psychologist Irving Kirsch, associate director of the Placebo Studies Program at Harvard Medical School. Kirsch’s research challenges the effectiveness of antidepressants. He said the difference between the effect of a placebo and the effect of an antidepressant is minimal for most people.
His specialty research has been the study of the placebo effect, -- the usage of an unmedicated pill. Apparently, the fake pill creates an expectation of healing that is so powerful, symptoms are actually alleviated. During the segment, Stahl also spoke with psychiatrists who disagreed with Kirsch's findings as well as another doctor whose own studies confirmed Kirsch’s analysis.
During the Kirsch interview, Stahl asserted, "But people are getting better taking antidepressants, I know them. We all know them."
Kirsch responded, "People get better when they take the drug, but it's not the chemical ingredients of the drugs that are making them better. It's largely the placebo effect."
The segment illustrated how powerful the mind is over the body; and some patients with cases of osteoporosis and Parkinson's disease even experienced improvements. Patients who took placebo pills actually had changes in blood pressure and brain chemistry.
As well, the segment touched on placebo surgery and its startling success. This surgery is a faked operative intervention without the actual surgical corrective step thought to be therapeutically necessary. Also, mentioned was the fact that positive physical changes even took place when doctors merely showed genuine care for patients.
Is this report “explosive?” Yes, because 17 million Americans take antidepressants. It puts a billion dollar pharmaceutical industry under a microscope.
And, yes, as well, because the report is quite thought provoking for those in the scientific community who have never before recognized the broad impact the mind has on physical health. However, it is not so explosive for those who already had indications of this phenomenon.
For quite some time, physicians and researchers have noticed and studied, in limited degree, expectations of betterment (the placebo effect) and fear of suffering (the nocebo effect) and how they influence health for better or worse.
Perhaps these revelations could point researchers in new directions. It could be asked, “To what extent does consciousness affect health? Are there limits to the mind controlling the body? And, is it possible to govern thought so that one could expect health on a consistent basis?”
A pioneer in the mind/health connection in the late 1800s, Mary Baker Eddy, confronted these questions. Her final analysis, many feel, was also quite explosive.
Kirsch challenging the effectiveness of antidepressants and uncovering the human mind’s role in healing is big, but just think of the debate that took place, and is still taking place, when it is suggested that spirituality has a part in health care.
Eddy, years ago, experimented with differing healing methods, including homeopathy and the use of placebos. During her research, she discovered that as medications were diluted by attenuation, patients’ improvements increased. She recognized that the drug had no intrinsic power of its own. The human mind was empowering the medication. Eddy’s and Kirsch’s findings seem to be similar on this point.
Yet, Eddy’s research went further. She felt there was something missing. And she felt that she uncovered the missing key during her own struggle with a serious physical challenge. She realized that the human mind could do marvelous things. However, she also felt it was the cause of most pain and disease. The real cure she said was in the spirit or mind of God (Christ) that Jesus utilized. She discovered during her own healing that both the human mind and body are subordinate to this divine mind.
While putting into practice what she learned, Eddy became known as a Christian and mental healer. Cures of acute, chronic, and organic disease as well as functional difficulties were documented. She taught others to heal. She then began calling her wholly mental and spiritual system of healing Christian Science.
Lesley Stahl’s 60 Minutes piece also brought up a moral issue. While promoting this story, Stahl was asked, “Should doctors be prescribing sugar pills?” Stahl said that she had asked this question throughout her reporting, and had learned it would not be an ethical practice.
Eddy, answering this question years ago, deepened the discussion when she wrote, “The only objection to giving the unmedicated sugar is, it would be dishonest and divide one's faith apparently between matter and mind, and so weaken both points of action; taking hold of both horns of the dilemma, we should work at opposites and accomplish less on either side.”
Stahl’s 60 Minutes segment will cause much discussion. This is a good thing. Hopefully, we can glean something new from the conversation. For some, it will be that the human mind governs our bodies more than we knew. For others, it might be an introduction to how mind/thought governed by the divine is even more helpful. Each has broad impacts on everyone’s physical care.
-- Keith Wommack is a Syndicated Health Blogger, Christian Science practitioner and teacher, musician, and step-dad. He is the media and legislative liaison for Christian Science in Texas. He has been described as a spiritual spur (since every horse needs a little nudge now and then).