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Whatever Makes You Feel Better

A thought experiment for your Tuesday afternoon.

Scenario A: You’ve been experiencing pain. Maybe it’s arthritic knees or chronic migraines or the fallout from an injury. You go to your local clinic. The building is sterile and clean. It is filled with all kinds of humming machines, urgent activities, and the myriad accoutrements of a modern, technologically advanced health care facility. Your doctor is well-groomed and wearing a white lab coat. On her office wall hang impressive-looking degrees from prestigious universities. She analyzes your symptoms, perhaps does an X-Ray or an ultrasound. Images are produced, diagnoses pronounced. Your doctor writes a prescription on official letterhead and sends you off to the pharmacy where you encounter a few more white lab coats, a bit more buzzing technological efficiency. Eventually, you depart with a sealed bottle of pills with detailed instructions on the label.

Scenario B: Same pain as in Scenario A. This time, a friend tells you that he knows a doctor who sells cheap meds as a kind of side-hustle. You make your way to an abandoned warehouse on the outskirts of town under the cloak of darkness. The doctor shows up wearing a dirty white Led Zeppelin t-shirt and ripped jeans. He has a cigarette hanging out of his mouth and reeks of cheap booze. He doesn’t ask you any questions about your pain. There are no X-Rays or ultrasounds. There is nothing technologically advanced or sterile or scientific about any of this. He slings you a plastic bag full of pills in exchange for a wad of cash and sends you on your merry way.

The chemical composition of the pills is the same in both stories. They are identical pills. In which story would you imagine that the pain would be more effectively relieved?

41T1KklRqFL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_The answer is obviously Story A. And this is borne out by the research, according to science writer Erik Vance, author of Suggestible You: The Curious Science of Your Brain’s Ability to Deceive, Transform, and Heal. The preceding thought experiment is a more elaborate version (and one involving considerable artistic license!) of a scenario Vance ponders in a recent episode of On Being called “The Drugs Inside Your Head.” The “placebo effect” is real, Vance says. Human brains are “prediction machines”—we extrapolate into the future based on what we’ve experienced or observed or been told in the past. Our brains can’t help themselves—we are storytellers, through and through. And so, we tell a story about the pills—a story about science and progress and technology and education and biology and chemistry and human bodies and beings and who is qualified to do what and what, ultimately, is trustworthy. It’s a story where we know the lines for white lab coats and science and progress and where ripped jeans, the smell of cheap booze, and abandoned warehouses are decidedly unwelcome.

And the story we tell ourselves is, at least to some degree, what seems to relieve the pain.

(That “to some degree” in the preceding sentence is really important. There are limits to the placebo effect, obviously. The brain seems to be able to mitigate some pain on its own, in certain circumstances, but it can’t cure cancer or Parkinson’s, no matter what some enthusiasts or charlatans might want to claim!)

I’ll come right out and say it. I don’t like all this. I don’t want this to be true. I don’t like the idea that my body can be tricked into “healing” itself. I think that if the pills work, they should work, whether they come from a shiny, sterile office full of respectable looking people or from a grungy warehouse and a shady-looking character. The scientific fact of the matter should trump my expectations or preferences. This is all entirely too fuzzy and manipulable for my liking. I like white lab coats and MRIs and sealed prescription bottles very much. Things should either be objectively true/effective or not. Yet this doesn’t seem to be how things work. This doesn’t seem to be how we work. What seems in fact to be the case is that the pills work. Sometimes. Sorta. And depending on the story we’re telling ourselves along the way.

There’s another reason I don’t like all this. When it comes to how easily our brains can be swayed, it’s not at all difficult to extrapolate beyond pills and pain. If the story we tell ourselves, the expectations we’ve settled on, and the parameters of possibility we’re willing to accept are a big part of whether or not something “works,” what does this say about how we inhabit our ideological worlds of politics and religion and ethics? It’s no secret that the stories we tell ourselves in these domains are a big part of their ongoing maintenance. Much as we might prefer to think that we accept this or that view about race or gender or politics or science or religion or explosive topic because it’s “objectively true,” in our more honest moments we know that we tend to overvalue evidence that supports what we already think/believe and to undervalue evidence that would undermine it. The facts tend to fit the stories we want to tell. This is just who we are and how we work.

Yes, we are storytellers, through and through. What we want to be true plays a far larger role in what we believe to be true than most of us are prepared to admit. And the correlate of this is also true: what we don’t want to be true, what we’re afraid of and dread, also has a profound effect on what we believe. This is what is called the “nocebo effect” (in medicine, the belief that something will have a negative effect will often play a role in bringing out precisely that effect, even when the treatment is inert). It would be interesting to run our interminable political and religious conflicts through the “nocebo effect” grid, wouldn’t it? I wonder how much of what we believe to be true and what we hang our very identities on has at least something to do with what we want not to be the case?

I suppose the long and the short of it is that reality is rather complicated. And we humans are complicated. There’s far less that’s “objective” about human experience and thinking and acting in the world than we might prefer. Our wanting is a rather significant feature of who we are (which is theologically fascinating, if terrifying under certain circumstances!). And far more often than we might like to admit, we’re reacting and responding and deciding and pursuing and defending and attacking and hoping based on a rather simple (and not-terribly-flattering) criterion: Whatever makes us feel better.

28 Comments Post a comment
  1. Mike #

    Such a fascinating post,Ryan.Thanks for the links too. This is among my favorite Topics to explore. The Power of suggestion is so interesting, might I recommend the books-“How your mind can make you well” by Roy Masters and “You Are the Placebo” by Dr Joe Dispenza. Also, “the Biology of Belief” by Bruce Lipton(on Youtube)

    October 2, 2019
    • Mike #

      PS Thanks for the podcast link to “On Being”, That was Great!

      October 2, 2019
      • You’re most welcome, Mike—and thanks for the suggestions.

        October 3, 2019
  2. Why does any of this matter? How does it advance the Gospels? How does it lead to salvation?
    Are you struggling with your faith? Brother, where art thou?

    October 2, 2019
  3. How do pre-occupations with posts like these advance love? You have such gifts. I cannot believe the Lord gave them to you for any other purpose but to advance the Gospels, advocate for love, strengthen faith. Your voice could make a difference. You could be a prophet if you had the courage to believe it. To act and write as if it were true, is the essential first truth….ties into what is useful in this post….do this and God will do the rest. Please believe, stop wrestling with doubts, the world needs you.

    October 2, 2019
  4. What’s the worst that can happen to you? A fool for love? A fool for truth? A fool for the Gospels?

    It is my heart’s desire to be such a fool? I would certainly enjoy your company along the way.

    October 2, 2019
  5. Sorry, the first sentence of paragraph 2 should read as a statement, not a question…I wear a fool’s hat well. 🙂

    October 2, 2019
  6. Jonathan Janzen #

    You remind me of St. Augustine. As you likely know, some 1700 years ago in his Confessions he described how our disordered desires lead us to see what we want to see, ignore what we want to ignore, and believing what we want to believe based on how it makes us feel. I just read an article earlier today in which a holy friend was described as someone who challenges “the sins we have come to love.” I think that’s the kind of gospel work you’re doing in your reflection here. Thanks.

    October 2, 2019
    • Mike #

      I feel like such an idiot. Thank you Jonathan for explaining THE POINT of the reflection with your comment. I honestly totally missed it while being absorbed with the placebo stuff.

      October 2, 2019
    • I hadn’t thought of the Augustinian connection! But, yes, “disordered desire” is certainly an appropriate and powerful theological lens through which to view so much of what/how we think and act in the world. As you allude to, an honest and accurate diagnosis of the human condition is part of the context in which the gospel is received and why it can be heard as good and liberating news.

      October 3, 2019
  7. Mike #

    I think often times that some people’s beliefs are formed through a lense of personal trauma. New Age teaching(s) seems to be very pliable in this regard and cater to those seeking an alternative to any religious doctrine they perceive as being “Negative”.

    October 4, 2019
    • Yes, I think what we endure certainly has an impact on what sorts of beliefs we are drawn to.

      October 4, 2019
      • I believe you both have it arsebackwards. If faith is informing your opinion; is your priority, then the more important truth is that what you believe, either helps or hinders what you can endure.

        October 4, 2019
  8. Perhaps my unsophisticated use of language is troubling and to your ears and not worth responding to. Let me rephrase then. Why are we bothering with the psychoanalytical as if it were causal? Surely from the Christian worldview, it is correlational. It is a symptom not a source.

    I don’t mean it is unimportant but surely it isn’t the point. The language and understanding required around these issues are probably limited to a conversation of less than 10% of the world’s population. Once we subtract the propensity for human error and human malice, the percentage becomes significantly less. Only a cruel God, if these kinds of understands were important to love on earth now and future salvation, would make it so……” sorry boys and girls, almost all of you are dumbasses…especially Foreman…off to hell with the lot of you.”

    The central thesis as I read it, correct me if I am wrong, goes something like, “let’s be honest, what we believe, informs what we can say we empirically know, more then what we can say, what we empirically know informs what we believe”….No shit Sherlock! Thanks for reminding me that if I don’t remember to breathe I will die! 🙂

    Further, again correct me if I am wrong, your tone suggests that this is a cause for concern. Concern?!
    Praise God this is the way it is!

    If almost all of us can’t honestly wrap our head around the truth of this topic, I’m thinking a “few more” of us ( in the less sense of the term) can understand much more about anything else!…. I see a faith belief emerging out of that swamp something akin to, “the final truth is that there is no truth, everything is hell and eat a lot of ice cream until you die a miserable death!”….

    You dismiss Dr. Jordan Pterson at your peril. He has it rightly ordered. From the material, through the psychoanalytical ultimately arriving at the “truth” of all things, Mr. Froddo…. the spiritual.

    And we the supposed, “spiritual” so determined now to start from truth and journey in the opposite direction. Our own little Poseidon adventure tragedy, cleverly racing to the bottom of the boat…

    The church will have to be torn down again, most likely. Mostly because, we the church, busy ourselves with the unimportant and the irrelevant.

    If all we have is faith, love of God, self and others, it is enough.

    Rumour has it that these humble exercises can take up a lifetime and beyond.

    October 4, 2019
    • Paul, my lack of response has nothing to do with your “unsophisticated use of language.” At some point, I suppose I just run out of ways to respond to the charge that I write about unimportant things or uninteresting things or irrelevant things or the right things in the wrong way or the wrong things in the right way or that I’m too rational or not spiritual enough or that I should stop writing publicly or that I should start writing prophetically or that I need to pray more or who knows what else. I get it. Believe me. I’ve heard enough by now to know what you consider my inadequacies to be. I’m just not always sure what to say when your response to much of what I write in this space is to criticize me for not writing about something else.

      Additionally, I’m not particularly motivated to respond when you feel quite free to unburden yourself of a laundry list of critiques to what write (or fail to write) here, but then not respond when I ask you some fairly pointed questions of my own (as was the case on the thread to the Love Loses” post). If you want to continue to engage here in this way, that’s fine, but when I run out of ideas for how to respond, I usually just stop responding.

      October 4, 2019
      • It seems malicious when you criticize my lack of response, while I am simultaneously being blocked.

        October 8, 2019
      • I don’t have a clue what you’re talking about, Paul. I am not blocking you and never have.

        October 8, 2019
  9. Paul Johnston #

    Talk about faith, reasonably? Yes. Put your faith in peoplekinds ability to reason? Yeah…..not so much.

    October 4, 2019
    • Paul Johnston #

      Someone was. It isnt relevant now.

      October 9, 2019
      • Mike #

        Paul, please accept this in the spirit that it is intended.
        I’ve had this “blocking” occur many times when trying to comment here (and elsewhere) and after carefully considering the circumstances, I came to realize that it was the Holy Spirit that forbade me to comment further. This does happen.

        October 10, 2019
      • Mike, I can assure you, too, that whatever blocking you have experienced here has nothing to do with me. Perhaps it is WordPress’s spam catcher? It often targets comments that have multiple hyperlinks inside. Perhaps it is the Holy Spirit. I don’t know. I simply know that it’s not me.

        I have only blocked one person in the 12+ year history of this blog, and he was spewing some pretty hateful garbage over a period of nearly two weeks.

        October 10, 2019
  10. Mike #

    OK. So, my frequent comments here are considered as spam? How dare you. 🙂

    October 10, 2019
  11. hello

    October 12, 2019
  12. Mike, I am always touched by your sensitivity and good nature. Feel free to advise me anytime. 🙂 I too consider what an interruption of any of my intentions might mean with regard to the Holy Spirit. While once upon a time in my life I was loathe to consider such things, it seems so obvious and essential now….in God’s time, thank God! lol

    God, your Father in heaven loves you, Mike. He is so proud of who you have become and are still becoming, You are loved deeply….. believe me when I tell you, I got friends on the inside. HAHAHAHAHA.

    Love Always,
    Your friend in Christ, Paul.

    October 12, 2019
    • Mike #

      I’m deeply moved by your comment,Paul. Thank You for your words of encouragement brother, it means a lot to me.

      October 13, 2019
      • You’re welcome, my brother. This is what we are called to remember; how deeply loved we are. For truth’s sake. For courage, for hope.

        Faith until the end.

        October 15, 2019
  13. Mike #

    Faith until the end

    October 15, 2019

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