IT SEEMED like a good idea until I saw the electrodes. Dr Luana Colloca’s white coat offered scant reassurance. “Do you mind receiving a series of electric shocks?” she asked.
I could hardly say no – after all, this was why I was here. Colloca’s colleague, Fabrizio Benedetti of the University of Turin in Italy, had invited me to come and experience their placebo research first hand. Colloca strapped an electrode to my forearm and sat me in a reclining chair in front of a computer screen. “Try to relax,” she said.
First, we established my pain scale by determining the mildest current I could feel, and the maximum amount I could bear. Then Colloca told me that, before I got another shock, a red or a green light would appear on the computer screen.
A green light meant I would receive a mild shock. A red light meant the shock would be more severe, like the jolt you get from an electric fence. All I had to do was rate the pain on a scale of 1 to 10, mild to severe. Continue reading “A Placebo Conundrum” by Michael Brooks
BELIEF has never literally moved a mountain, but it can have some dramatic effects. Take Madeleine Rizan. By the time she bathed in the waters of Lourdes in 1858 she had been paralysed for 24 years, yet, according to the record, she regained her ability to move. Then there are the dozens of heart patients in the 1950s who were helped by a procedure known as internal mammary ligation – which worked just as well when patients simply believed it had been done. There are even instances of women who stop menstruating, grow a round belly and begin to lactate, in the firm but mistaken belief that they are pregnant. Equally mysterious are the paralysed people who believe their limbs are still working normally, despite the evidence of their own eyes.
What is going on inside our brains when we believe? How does that trigger physical changes in our bodies? And why would our minds believe the world is a certain way in flat contradiction to the evidence of our own senses? Or, put another way, what exactly is the biological basis of belief? “It’s a fascinating question and poorly studied,” says Vilayanur Ramachandran, a neurologist at the University of California at San Diego who has spent much of his career studying “disorders of belief”. Dean Hamer, from the US National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, and author of The God Gene, goes further. “We have absolutely no idea,” he says. “Nobody has any idea.” Continue reading Biology & Belief