The Deadly Opposite of the Placebo Effect

Photo by Christopher Burns on Unsplash

Humans are a suggestible bunch. We’re constantly influenced by external factors, be it advertising, social conformity, or any else in our environment. There’s also internal factors that affect us, and one that is utterly terrifying, like a demon lurking in our minds, waiting for its chance to strike a malevolent blow. When we’re in a regular state of stress, it’s hard to defend against.

Some historical cases explain it best. In the 70’s, a man was diagnosed with terminal liver cancer and given just two months to live. The pronouncement appeared true, and he passed away. After slicing the unfortunate chap open, however, they discovered that his tumour had not grown, and concluded that it was not the cause of his death. They speculated that it may have been the expectation of his impending death that actually killed him.

In another example, a despondent gentleman decided that existence was no longer worth it, and downed a bottle of pills. Almost immediately afterwards he rediscovered a ton of reasons to live, and dashed to the nearest hospital, collapsing when arriving at reception due to hyperventilation and low blood pressure. It was quickly discovered that the morose man was currently in the midst of a drug trial, in which unknown to him, he’d been assigned placebos. Turns out that he’d consumed a whole bottle of sugar pills, and his mind had manifested his pearly-gate-approaching symptoms. After being told the good news, he promptly recovered.

If you’re a hayfever sufferer, you might consider artificial flowers to be a safe bet. But a hundred years ago, doctors found that hayfever symptoms can be brought on by exposure to fake roses. This only worked if the person didn’t know that they were made of plastic.

In the present, modern technology is causing similar problems for people. Sufferers of Electromagnetic hypersensitivity believe that the plethora of electronic devices surrounding them make them sick. As with the other examples, these people actually manifest symptoms when exposed to what they conclude to be areas with strong electromagnetic fields. They don’t do so well in double-blind experiments though, being completely unable to identify when an intense field is present. Wind Turbine Syndrome, common in Canada, is another example of a disease created purely from suggestion.

This hideous yet fascinating quirk of the mind is called the nocebo effect—the nefarious twin brother of the much more agreeable placebo effect. Both of these are proof that our beliefs and expectations can have a direct cause on our wellbeing. The American Cancer Society claims that the placebo effect is responsible for up to a third of symptom relief for sick people. That’s a staggering amount. With this in mind, how much suffering might we be causing ourselves as a result of its malevolent twin, the nocebo effect? If we expect to have a miserable day at work, are we authoring our own fate? Are we making ourselves unwell?

Chilling as the nocebo effect is, the power of its counterpart cannot be understated. The placebo effect has the capacity to cure cancer, heal ulcers, and even persuade assumed-to-be-dead hair follicles to sprout from the heads of bald men. It’s a small part of our incredible and unfathomable ability to self-repair, which if we play our cards right, can be used to our advantage.

This extraordinary self-restoration skill only works when you’re relaxed; the moments when your parasympathetic nervous system is in play. Stressed people don’t self-heal, they self-harm. You need a healthy mind to mend your ills, and there’s a number of ways that it can be achieved.

Most importantly: meditate. It’s probably the most essential habit that you can develop for yourself, besides regular exercise. It’ll drastically reduce your stress levels; you’ll learn to distance yourself from your emotions, instead of being swept away by them; it enhances your self-esteem and acceptance, improves your memory, your focus, your energy. The list goes on.

Strong relationships are often developed and maintained by calmer people; the lonely among us suffer much more stress. Spending time with your treasured friends is essential to keep the relationship alive, and usually, a hell of a lot of fun.

Self-compassion is a powerful psychological habit for the healthy-minded among us. Just as caring, nurturing doctors and nurses have shown to accelerate the recovery of their patients, we too can cultivate a similar attitude towards ourselves, and reduce our stress levels.

Finally, do anything and everything that feels honest and enjoyable to you. Slowly make your life into something that you want, not the life that society attempts to coerce you into. Over time, the modest improvements that you make will bring your self-repair mechanisms into play more often, reducing the odious nocebo effect, and increasing the regenerating placebo effect.

The Salesman Inside Our Own Heads

Image from Pixabay

Last week, the CEO of my company came to my desk and asked for a chat. I’ve been working at the organisation for over seven years, almost since its inception—part of the furniture, you might say. I’ve always had a good relationship with the man who was leading me silently into a meeting room, each step more ominous than the last.

“It’s not good news I’m afraid” he said, after closing the door.

“Redundancy?”

“Yes.”

My heart sped up a little, but then immediately slowed down to its normal pace. As he explained the reasoning behind the loss of my job, I felt the oddest sense of serenity, like a wizened old Buddhist atop a rugged Tibetan mountain. I quietly marvelled at my sense of calm—why wasn’t I climbing the walls in anxiety? Chewing my nails down to tender pink nubs? Heart racing like a jackrabbit after a can of Red Bull? I’m relatively calm by nature, but redundancy is a big deal, especially for a job that you’ve held for almost a decade, and I didn’t feel concerned in the slightest. I still don’t.

Daniel Gilbert is an American social psychologist, and his work on affective forecasting—our ability to predict our future emotional state—can offer some insight into my odd sense of serenity. For many, the loss of a job might be viewed as catastrophic, accompanied by mental anguish and stinging embarrassment, healed only by disappearing into the duvet for 24 hours. But Gilbert and his colleagues uncovered an important truth about our ability to predict our future emotional state: we’re terrible at it¹. We constantly misjudge. Events that we consider to be life changing end up being brushed off with ease. Gilbert dubbed this wonderful resilience of ours a “psychological immune system”, protecting us from big negative events, so that we can continue to function without descending into unbounded, gloomy dismay.

The psychological immune system works as a kind of salesman, who convinces you to buy into your new, altered reality. The negative aspects of your previous situation become highlighted—the tedious day-to-day tasks; the missing sense of making any kind of real difference; the insufferable penis in charge of accounts. Such afflictions are brought into sharp focus, and your freedom from them is sweeter than a packet of jelly babies. Similarly, positive aspects of your new situation begin to emerge in your mind—the excitement of fresh challenges; the prospect of a better wage; the opportunity to make new friends. The psychological immune system transforms the situation from a depressing failure into a glorious opportunity, and it does this by making us believe that our new situation is better, and our old situation worse, creating a silver lining so thick as to be impenetrable.

The part of our brain responsible for decision making is the pre-frontal cortex, which works as an experience simulator¹, running through various scenarios and determining whether they’re agreeable, or disagreeable. When it simulates an extreme experience such as the death of your spouse, the cyclonic destruction of your house, or the loss of your job, it usually concludes that you’re going to suffer miserably, for a long time—a term known as “impact bias”. But when these undesirable realities actually hit, your psychological immune system kicks into gear, and rather than concurring with your pre-frontal cortex’s woeful simulation, narrates an entirely different story infused with confidence and hope, which you’re all-too-willing to accept to relinquish the anguish that you’re feeling. Why would you choose to believe the grim story from your pre-frontal cortex, when you can believe the comforting story of your psychological immune system?

In our scientific age, the idea of choosing which story to believe might seem fanciful and wishy-washy, as though we’d rather exist in a cotton-candy fairytale land filled with joy, than live in the hard-edged, gritty real world. It’s like choosing the blue pill, instead of the red pill. Objective truth, however, is a tricky thing to pin down, especially regarding subjective emotion.

I have a suspicion that my girlfriend no longer loves me, which makes me sad. While the thought itself can be objectively scrutinized for its truth (maybe she does love me, after all), the emotion that came from the thought cannot be denied—the sadness has been experienced, therefore it exists, and is true. So why not believe the emotionally-positive, hopeful story of your psychological immune system, instead of the woeful prediction of your pre-frontal cortex? The emotions from both stories are still subjectively experienced, making them true. Rejecting your psychological immune system’s story just seems like unnecessary suffering. What are our emotional lives, after all, than the stories that we tell ourselves? Acceptance Commitment Therapy—a relatively new treatment effective at reducing anxiety2—even has a concept called “cognitive fusion” to explain the harm that we do ourselves by buying into our negative stories, counteracted with “defusion” techniques.

“We suffer more often in imagination than in reality.”

Seneca

In my case, the psychological immune system seems only partly responsible for my blasé attitude towards the loss of my job. I’ve known for a while that I want to change careers, with a switch of company inevitable. This knowledge, combined with the anticipation of a redundancy payout, might have been enough to explain my calm demeanour. But the comfort and confidence that I feel going into the future is undoubtedly a result of my psychological immune system, convincing me that everything is going to be alright, like a best friend, nestled inside my own head. It’s telling me that a chapter of my life is over, and is about to be replaced with something more exciting and fulfilling. 

I’m choosing to believe it.

References

  1. Daniel Gilbert, The Surprising Science of Happiness
  2. Mostafa Heydari, Saideh Masafi, Mehdi Jafari, Seyed Hassan Saadat, and Shima Shahyad, Effectiveness of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy on Anxiety and Depression of Razi Psychiatric Center Staff

The Therapeutic Power of Psychedelics and MDMA

03-Microdosing-lede.w536.h536.2x.jpgImage from NY Mag

Back in the 50’s, not too long after Albert Hoffman discovered the mind-bending, consciousness-expanding properties of LSD, scientists starting conducting experiments into the therapeutic potential of the drug. It became a popular area of research, and by the mid-60’s had spawned six international conferences, and over 1,000 peer-reviewed clinical papers¹.

Meanwhile, the first sparks of the acid revolution had been lit, spearheaded by passionate acolytes such as Timothy Leary and Ram Dass, who believed that the drug held the key to shifting our global consciousness, to create a more peaceful, loving human species. It’d be tough to find a loftier, more noble objective.

Then it all went to shit. Governments across the world became concerned about the widespread, casual use of such a potent substance, particularly one that caused its users to doubt and criticise the power structures within their society, often calling for a freer, less restricted world. LSD was promptly banned by governments, forcing chief manufacturer Sandoz to halt production in the mid-60s¹. The first era of psychedelic therapy was over.

Thankfully, there’s been a resurgence. Governments are once again becoming receptive to the therapeutic potential of “party” drugs such as acid, psilocybin, and MDMA, whose reputation has been tainted in part by the greedy fear-mongering of the popular press. Scientific studies are becoming increasingly common, some with astounding results. The gold-standard treatment for PTSD is prolonged exposure therapy—MDMA has been found to be twice as successful². Psilocybin—the psychoactive chemical found in magic mushrooms—had an 80% success rate in breaking a smoking habit, compared to 35% for conventional treatments³. It’s also been shown to cure severe depression⁴.

“Perhaps to some extent we have lost sight of the fact that (LSD) can be very, very helpful in our society if used properly.”—Robert Kennedy

Though the hardened conservative will undoubtedly raise his eyebrows in disbelief, the people who have spent their lives taking illegal drugs such as MDMA, LSD, and magic mushrooms may be unsurprised at the results. It’s obvious that these drugs have incredible potential for our psychological health. The pristine empathy and compassion one feels in the midst of an MDMA experience tells you everything you need to know. How could such an emotionally positive experience not have therapeutic potential?

In my late teenage years, I found myself surrounded by friends in the comfortable living room of one of our parents, each of us high on ecstasy. Uninhibited conversation was flowing, and upon reaching the topic of our fathers (Freud’s spirit nestled in the corner, glowing with anticipation), for the first time in his life, one of my friends opened up about his difficult relationship with his dad. He expressed sheer, unalloyed pain at his dad’s early departure from the family, followed by the brutal indifference that he exhibited towards him in the years after. There were floods of tears, but no awkwardness from anybody—just pure compassion and sympathy. Afterwards, he seemed as though a weight had been lifted off his shoulders, finally able to talk about something that had created anguish for years. It remains the most beautiful moment I’ve ever had with my friends.

“What’s unique about MDMA is that it’s actually stimulating but decreases anxiety…it could help people feel calm and comfortable enough to explore painful things that are hard to talk about.”—Julie Holland

The bonding power of MDMA cannot be understated, even with people who you’re already close to. Everyone tends to emerge from a session with a feeling of heart-warming emotional closeness, and a fiercer sense of loyalty towards this magnificent bunch of people with who we’ve spent the last eight hours. Time spent on MDMA can be flawlessly authentic, offering a state of mind that encourages you to delve into profoundly meaningful topics that you’re usually too wary to approach.

As a shy and cautious teenager, I’d often have trouble interacting with people who weren’t my friends—the gut-wrenching awkwardness was too much to bear, so I wouldn’t bother trying. MDMA helped to bring me out of my shell, and not just for the duration of the high, but extending far into the future. The rush of empathy one feels while on the drug, mixed with the feeling of immaculate love towards people around you, taught me not only to more easily identify the inherent good in other people, but to realise that I was worthy of their company and friendship. It accorded me the courage needed to speak and act without restraint, teaching myself—little-by-little—that I was more than capable of being a funny, interesting person, whose company people were eager to keep. By improving my emotional intelligence, MDMA has undoubtedly helped to shape my personality into something better.

Psychedelics such as LSD and magic mushrooms also have a reputation for changing people profoundly. In Michael Pollan’s incredible book How To Change Your Minda treatise on the beneficial effects of psychedelics—he reveals that many people who take these kinds of drugs describe it as one of “the most meaningful experiences of their lives”. Psychedelics dampen our Default Mode Network, which is suspected to be the creator of our ego. As our sense of self dissipates, we can feel a profound sense of unity with the world around us, and our brains are temporarily permitted to make brand new connections, illustrated beautifully in this diagram from the book.

brain-networks

Image from Discover Magazine

This is why creatives in Silicon Valley are spending their work-days microdosing—it unfetters their naturally restricted brains, allowing them to be more creative than ever before.

“I’m glad mushrooms are against the law, because I took them one time, and you know what happened to me? I laid in a field of green grass for four hours going, ‘My God! I love everything.’ Yeah, now if that isn’t a hazard to our country…how are we gonna justify arms dealing when we realize that we’re all one?”—Bill Hicks

There’s a big difference between the occasional drug-taking experience, and using substances as a coping mechanism for the pain in your life. Highly-addictive drugs such as cocaine and heroin are a completely different beast, and should be avoided at all costs. This kind of escapism rarely ends well — it’s usually much better to face your suffering head on, with as much courage as you can muster.

“Taking LSD was a profound experience, one of the most important things in my life. LSD shows you that there’s another side to the coin, and you can’t remember it when it wears off, but you know it. It reinforced my sense of what was important — creating great things instead of making money, putting things back into the stream of history and of human consciousness as much as I could.”—Steve Jobs

When it comes to MDMA, LSD, and psilocybin, it’s no wonder that people are willing to break the law in order to experience them. They can function as a form of self-therapy—a vehicle for fundamentally changing your brain, quicker and more effective than any other method. Since the discovery of LSD back in the 50’s, scientists have suspected its therapeutic benefits, kickstarting a field of research that has shown incredible results. But for the general public, stringent scientific experiments aren’t needed to tell them what they already know: MDMA, LSD, and psilocybin—when used for the right reasons— have the power to improve our lives. This is why millions of everyday people are willing to position themselves on the wrong side of the law. It’s not just about goofing around with your friends—laughing but also terrified at the clouds wiggling and shifting into new shapes—it’s about being equipped with the courage needed to leap over personal boundaries—a shift in consciousness that can teach you how to be a better person, with opportunities to encounter the world from fresher, more fluid perspectives. These drug can equip us with the potential to break out of our tired, restrictive moulds. Scientists have known this for years, as have regular, law-breaking users.

It isn’t a question of whether these drugs have therapeutic benefits, but a question of when our governments will be able to get past their antiquated views and embrace them as valuable weapons in our medical arsenal. Great progress has been made with marijuana. In time, and as more scientific evidence emerges, perhaps the same will happen with MDMA and psychedelics.

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Some words of caution
MDMA, LSD and psilocybin are still illegal in many countries, and as such, their production lacks quality control. Drug testing kits are essential to test their purity, and obvious discretion required if you’re willing to take the necessary risks to acquire the drugs themselves. This article is by no means an advocation to do so. It’s also worth noting that these drugs aren’t for everyone, particularly for those with serious mental illnesses.

References

1. Wikipedia, Psychedelic Therapy 
2. Jesse Noakes, Psychedelic renaissance: could MDMA help with PTSD, depression and anxiety?
3. Magic Mushrooms” Can Help Smokers Break the Habit
4. Sarah Boseley, Magic mushrooms lift severe depression in clinical trial

The Psychology of Flat Earthers

flat-earthers (1)Image from NY Post

Flat Earthers have a tendency to evoke a great deal of condescension in people. Wry grins are accompanied by snorts and scoffs, all wrapped up in a feeling of unquestionable superiority. What kind of idiots could believe such a thing?

While it’s undeniably humourous to witness a group of adults disprove their own whacky belief using the scientific method, it’s important to put aside our smugness and try to understand how—in the face of overwhelming contrary evidence—a large group of people could believe such an outrageous idea.

The hardened beliefs of a Flat Earther are caused by a mixture of fascinating psychological processes, the enlightening of which can help to protect ourselves against such rampant illogicality. Truth is critical for the survival of our species—a firm grip on reality essential for mastery over our environment. Consider some of the great achievers of history, infected with the absurdity of the Flat Earth belief—Francis Drake might have been too fearful to steer his galleon towards the dusky horizon, lest the ship find itself suspended in mid air, before toppling into the unforgivable abyss. Physicist Léon Foucault would have seen little point in attempting to demonstrate the earth’s rotation using his famous pendulum. The Wright Brothers might have been too fearful to carry out their sky-soaring antics, worried about eventually flying off the edge of the planet into a body-crushing black hole. For our species to be successful, we need solid, verifiable information. Without it we’re lost.

Here’s some of the psychological phenomenon that might be occurring in a typical Flat Earther.

Motivated reasoning

This is a type of reasoning motivated towards reaching a conclusion that matches our pre-existing beliefs, resulting in feel-good positive emotions. When our beliefs are challenged, we experience an unpleasant, almost jarring sensation called cognitive dissonance—our confidence on the topic has been called into question, and we feel a strong urge to get rid of the uncomfortable feeling. There’s two ways to vanquish cognitive dissonance—replace our current idea with the new one being proposed, or blankly reject it. It’s obvious which one is easier—no cognitive effort is needed for rejection, but replacing the idea with something new requires us to search our memories for related information, and consider the logicality of it. The principle of least effort tells us that we’re probably going to reject the idea. Some Flat Earthers are so bold in their beliefs, with such an illusion of objectivity, that they probably never even arrive at cognitive dissonance, blankly rejecting the evidence before it has a chance to rear its head.

Motivated reasoning ensures that a Flat Earther experiences as little negative emotion as possible—an existence of blissful comfort in which they’re definitely right, without having to undergo the mental distress of getting to the actual truth. In the Flat Earth Netflix documentary Behind the Curve, cognitive dissonance is illustrated beautifully in the closing scenes, as Jaren Campanella tries to disprove the Flat Earth theory by copying the Bedford Level experiment—an exercise carried out in the 19th century which proved the earth’s curvature. As the result of the experiment becomes clear, the mental anguish caused by Jaren’s cognitive dissonance is almost too painful to watch, as his mind wrestles with the terrifying notion that—despite having invested so much time, effort, and social credibility into his theory—he might be wrong after all. Motivated reasoning is a powerful force though—a peek at his Twitter account reveals his continued belief in the theory.

Motivated reasoning occurs when a person’s self-esteem, their future, or their understanding of the world are at stake. Disproving the theory that a Flat Earther spends their life promoting could destroy their self-esteem, put their future into question, and invalidate their understanding of how the world works. With so much at stake, it’s no wonder that Mr Campanella’s brain subconsciously protects itself with the mental gymnastics of motivated reasoning.

This theory is supported by another psychological phenomenon called confirmation bias, which explains our tendency to actively seek out information that confirms our pre-existing beliefs, and ignore information that contradicts with it.

1_O5mXneFq5X2EDUIz6INRPw.jpegImage from Chainsawsuit.com

Contrary evidence—equally as visible as everything else—conveniently fades into the background. Though we may enjoy the occasional flirtation with an opposing idea, we want to be right about our deeply-held beliefs, because it does wonders for our confidence and sense of surety.

As our Google results flash up, our eyes make a beeline for the link that matches our theory. As we talk with our friends, our ears bring up the volume for words that agree with ours, and hit the mute button for words that disagree. As we furrow our brows and try to recall something from our saturated brain, we remember the information that matches our beliefs, and ignore everything else.

When our convictions are presented to us from the real world, they’re glowing with a sparkling resonance, which we grab at like greedy children in order to boost our delicate egos. This is especially true if we have strong emotional ties to the belief, which would undoubtedly be the case for Flat Earthers, who must surely be on the receiving end of regular bouts of ridicule.

Tribalism and belonging

As our species evolved, fitting into our group was a matter of life and death, resulting in our yearning desire to belong. We desperately want everyone to accept us, because in the past, it gave us a much better chance of survival. We’re social animals to the core. The desire to belong is so universal that it’s found within every single culture on the planet. The alternative to belonging to a group is anxiety-fuelled loneliness — a harsh social pain that motivates us to seek out a tribe that we can call our own.

Perched on the fringes of society, with an intense hankering to be proven right, Flat Earthers must surely welcome new believers with open arms. This isn’t an exclusive club that everyone is dying to get into, but a motley crue of oddball characters, who’ll take anyone that they can get. Once immersed into the community, a new member might find themselves glowing with a sense of acceptance and belonging, feeling as though they’re finally part of a group who gets them, and will protect them from the emotional danger of a cruel, unforgiving world. Though it’s difficult to believe, their fellow Flat Earthers are the only people who can see through the biggest illusion in human history, and they’re lucky enough to be a part of this wonderful tribe, flushed with the idea of finally being connected with a common identity, and one of such obvious importance!

A fierce loyalty develops towards the group, which is to protected at all costs. Danger to the tribe is danger to the individual. The affiliation that is shared between a group of individuals is too precious to be left exposed—an invaluable bond that restores the self-esteem of each and every member. A tribe is worth its weight in gold.

Confidence

Confidence is a wonderful feeling. It’s the universe telling us that we’re doing well, despite the repeated failures of our past. We feel energised and willing to tackle things heads on, fuelled by an expansive feeling of power.

Confidence goes hand-in-hand with being (or at least feeling) right. As a fresh Flat Earther indoctrinates themselves into the group—confidence strengthened with each new piece of “evidence”—a feeling of superiority emerges, and they cannot believe how everyone else can be so foolish. They’re suddenly oozing with a self-confidence that has been lacking their whole lives. Not only do their fellow believers want to talk to them, they actually agree with them! They become immersed in a serene and reverberant echo chamber, in which everyone repeatedly confirms each other’s absurd beliefs.

Electrified with a new-found optimism, a Flat Earther may feel the need to spread their truth to as many people as possible, filled with passionate and seemingly enduring confidence. Such a feeling is addictive to say the least—how good it feels to be right for a change; what a contrast to the apathetic disengagement that accompanied life before Flat Earth. Why would I ever want to go back to that?

Meaning

A Flat Earther might finally feel that they’re a part of something bigger than themselves, becoming impassioned with meaning and purpose—a newly christened acolyte to the cause. When we come across something that is personally meaningful to us, we’re drawn to it like wasps to a lollipop, invigorated with motivation.

Our personal sense of meaning and the beliefs that follow from it form a strong part of our identity. Imagine how lost an Islamic extremist might feel after suddenly and spectacularly losing their faith? The core part of their identity has vanished into mist, to be replaced with — what?

What could be more important than a sense of personal meaning? After the philosophical “death” of god, who for centuries was the sole source of meaning for most people, existentialists such as Friedrich Nietzsche and Albert Camus spent their lives trying to understand how to replace such a formidable force. Without meaning, life can seem completely pointless. It doesn’t matter whether it’s the irrational belief in an omnipotent, beaming god, or the irrational belief in the earth being shaped like a pancake. The outcome is the same—a confident, fulfilling contentment, drawn from the idea that existence actually means something, and I’ve finally found out what that is, so good luck prying that from my white-knuckled grip.

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Confounded disbelief is a common reaction to believers of the Flat Earth theory, until you examine the complex psychological processes at play. Credulity becomes forgivable in the face of such powerful forces. Our understanding of the inner workings of our minds—particularly their motivating biases, fallacies, and illogicalities—seems essential in order for us to create a more concrete reality, so that that we navigate our world with greater confidence. In a climate of increasingly alarming misinformation and fake news, this seems more important than ever.