The latest evidence shows that the strongest medicine is not a conventional pill, a surgical technique or even an alternative treatment, but the power of the mind-and the 'contract' of belief between healer and patient.
Surgeon Dr Angel Escudero of Valencia, Spain, has carried out more than 900 cases of complex surgery without anaesthesia. BBC cameras were invited into his operating room and captured on film a woman who was having such an operation. In this segment of the Beeb's Your Life in Their Hands series (aired in May 1991), Escudero made incisions, then sawed, drilled and hammered to break and reset the deformed leg of his fully conscious patient, who was using his 'noesitherapy' technique of pain control.
All his patient had to do was make sure her mouth was full of saliva and keep repeating to herself, 'My leg is anaesthetized'. A dry mouth is one of the mind's first warning signals of danger. When the mouth is kept lubricated, the brain relaxes, assumes all is well and turns off its pain receptors, assured that anaesthetics have been given.
In fact, her affirmation of intention was as powerful as any actual anaesthesia. Her body, which could not tell the difference between a lack of pain and the thought of a lack of pain, turned off its alarms so that even while her leg was being sliced open, she relaxed and slept.
Escudero's work is only the most extreme evidence of the power of the mind as the central mechanism in healing. Medical doctors already acknowledge the centrality of belief in healing through the widespread use of the placebo.
In the 16 December 2006 issue of New Scientist, orthodox French psychiatrist Patrick Lemoine, an expert on the placebo effect, made the astonishing admission that up to 35-40 per cent of all official prescriptions given to patients are 'impure' placebos. By this, he means that a pharmacologically inactive substance-a sugar pill-is 'contaminated' by a tiny amount of active ingredient. The result is that the treatment is not sufficient to produce a clinical effect, but is just enough for doctors to claim that it does.
In other words, more than a third of all prescriptions are dummy pills and, if they work at all, it's because of the power of the mind-the belief on the part of the patient that what the doctor has given him will work.
One recent hospital study estimates that 60 per cent of doctors regularly make use of placebos-some at least once a week-and over half find them to be highly effective (BMJ, 2004; 329: 944-6). The latest estimates are that placebo or sham treatments 'cure' between 30-70 per cent of all patients who receive them (JAMA, 1955; 159: 1602-6; Clin Psych Rev, 1993; 13: 375-91; J Am Dent Assoc, 1976; 92: 755-8).
However, doctors are themselves taking a placebo, in Lemoine's view. They prescribe impure placebos to fool themselves, at the same time as they fool their patients, that the treatment has predictable, scientifically tested effects.'
The placebo effect demonstrates that beliefs are powerful healers, even when the belief has no foundation. The placebo is a form of intention-the expectation that doing one thing will change something else-an instance of intention trickery.
When the doctor gives his patient a placebo, or sugar pill, he is counting on the patient's belief that the drug will work. It is well documented that belief in a placebo will create the same physiological effects as that of an active agent, so much so that it causes the pharmaceutical industry enormous difficulty when designing drug trials. So many patients receive the same relief and even the same side-effects with a placebo as with the drug itself that a placebo cannot be considered a true control for comparison. Our bodies do not distinguish between a chemical process and the thought of a chemical process.