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Magic is Alive

Magical thinking commonly thought to be a positive symtom of schizophrenia, or at least of disorder related to schizophrenia like schizotypal personality disorder.  An example of magical thinking might be thinking that one has the power to heal oneself just by thinking about it in a certain way, or healing oneself by putting the power of one’s belief into an otherwise inert substance and then using the substance for healing.

What is strange about this is that scientific research actually confirms that magic such at described above happens at least a significant portion of the time.  It’s called the placebo effect.  People think they are going to be healed or helped, and somehow they are.  While it is typically believed that people have to think that at least possibly the substance they are taking is one that will physically cause a certain effect, a recent bit of research suggests that this is not true, and healing effects can occur even if the person knows the substance they are taking is inert. “People taking placebos don’t have to think they’re getting real drugs to enjoy the placebo effect. A new study published in the journal PLoS reports on patients who had irritable bowel syndrome and were told they were being given a placebo as part of a novel experiment. They took pills from a big bottle clearly marked “placebo”—and got better, anyway. “In addition to the bogus medication, the volunteers were given a true story—the story of the placebo effect,” Steve Silberman explains explains on the PLoS blog. “The combination of the story and a supportive clinical environment were enough to prevail over the knowledge that there was really nothing in the pills. People in the placebo arm of the trial got better—clinically, measurably, significantly better—on standard scales of symptom severity and overall quality of life. In fact, the volunteers in the placebo group experienced improvement comparable to patients taking a drug called alosetron, the standard of care for IBS. ” Scientists believe the remarkable findings are the result of the body’s “powerful self-healing network,” which can be activated by “nothing more or less than a belief that one is receiving effective treatment.” And while placebos aren’t going to replace pharmaceuticals any time soon, Silberman calls the development “good news to anyone but investors in Pfizer, Roche, and GlaxoSmithKline.” Read original story in PLoS | Thursday, Dec. 23, 2010 ”

It’s important to note that it wasn’t just interaction with researchers that led to the positive effects, because the control group had an equivalent amount of interaction with researchers.  The positive results seemed to come from the researchers encouraging people to believe they could do magic with the pill, and so they could.

While the placebo effect is a healing or positive one, it should be noted that there is also a “nocebo effect” which is where something causes a negative effect just because someone thinks that it will.  (The placebo effect is “white magic” while the nocebo effect is “black magic.”)

While not all magical beliefs are true, it seems it is also a delusion to think that magic isn’t real.  This is perhaps a thought some of you will appreciate as we currently experience the holidays.  Because religious thinking isn’t all that much different from magical thinking – even those of us that hate religious dogma can respect that there is a place for recognition of mystery and a role for that which goes beyond what we already understand.

One amazing song that celebrates this is  I have to think that if we had more respect for magic and mystery, we would be slower to think that those with apparently “psychotic” thinking had nothing to teach us.

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