I like to think of myself as a reasonably intelligent person. After all I have had a long life, following a Jesuit education, married for 60 years, five children and a career in high level finance. I am confident that my decisions and choices are well founded. But I am put on warning: people have an inbuilt tendency to overestimate their intelligence. Why not me? Or you?
I have been looking at the placebo effect. It is a valuable source of knowledge about the way the human mind works. It has the great advantage of enabling us to measure our possible confusions in a reasonably precise way. For example, the effectiveness of a drug for a particular condition can be measured by giving it to some patients while other patients are given a neutral substance instead. Clearly the effectiveness of the drug can be measured by the outcomes of the two groups. However, a number of the patients, who did not know that they had been given the neutral substance, also improved. This is put down to the placebo effect: thinking that you have, or may have had, the correct drug is enough to bring about a degree of recovery.
Perhaps even odder than that, there is evidence that for some conditions even telling the patient that the drug given is inert does not prevent an improvement. I can only suppose that going through the routines focuses the mind on the condition and in some way affects the brain. The patient’s basic temperament appears to be significant.
Other factors play their part. For instance, placebic injections are more effective than placebic pills. And blue pills are more effective than pink ones. Confidence in the medical team or an admired doctor also contribute. A most dramatic example is the potential effectiveness of sham stem cells injected into the brain in cases of
Nor should we forget the “nocebo effect”. Here, for example, patients are told that a neutral cream may lead to more pain in some people. And so it does. You will understand how such phenomena can complicate medical conclusions.
Nor is this confined to medical issues. Athletes can improve their performance by false measurements of their timings, and insomniacs can brighten up when (fictional) tests show that that they had had better sleep than they thought. (You will find a thorough article on placebos on the British Psychological Society site at: p://tiny.cc/hzdc7y)
We are not thinking here merely of interesting facts: we are discovering how the human brain works. What we know, or what we decide, is the outcome of the combination between the action of our brains and our freewill. This column is not called Science and Faith for no reason. Every time we act, think or learn our brain changes. It carries our memories further back than we can actually remember, and even these may be distorted. The influence of our parents, other early carers and our siblings, is largely forgotten, but they travel with us into adulthood. I assume that I learnt my faith from my parents, and even now I can remember the answers in the Penny Catechism. Add to that all our experiences and decisions throughout life – each of them, and their consequences, have altered our brains, and so influence our decisions.
So much for freewill? I will certainly defend its existence – but I need to be careful. Most of the time, what are apparently free choices are in fact reactions furnished by my brain. They may well feel free but, unless I am aware of the likely influences playing their part, my freedom may be very limited. I am, as it happens, rather good at convincing myself that whatever I want to do can be justified in some way or another.
There is another side to this of course, how do we judge the actions of others? We might be thinking of gross activities such as murder, fraudulence, adultery or – if we are prepared to go that far – the abuse of the young. Naturally we judge them by our own standards, and that means that they can by no means be tolerated. But how about their standards? We know nothing of their experiences or the details of their brains. They should be punished of course – but perhaps not for their guilt, which we cannot measure, but because their punishment is an unpleasant experience which will be in their brains when faced by the next temptation. You may think I am going too far — but one day we will all be judged before the throne of God and I, at least, would prefer him to bear in mind all the subconscious weaknesses which have contributed to any sinful activities.