This morning, my cat, Chante, woke up before me. Chante’s getting a bit old, and has some problems sleeping through the night. She climbed up on my side of the bed, looked into my sleepy eyes, and filed her complaint. “Meoooooow”. I reached over and rubbed her chin. She purrred, happy now. I am a placebo.
The Oxford dictionary defines placebo effect as “A beneficial effect produced by a placebo drug or treatment, which cannot be attributed to the properties of the placebo itself, and must therefore be due to the patient’s belief in that treatment“,
Am I a medicine, or a treatment. My touch didn’t make some physical change in my cat’s physiology. It appears she believes in my healing powers, and because she believes in me, I made her feel better. My hand, my therapeutic touch calmed her – but I fear I am nothing but a placebo.
What is a placebo? The Oxford dictionary says that a placebo is “A medicine or procedure prescribed for the psychological benefit to the patient rather than for any physiological effect.” That’s me, I guess.
But what is a placebo response, really? I didn’t make Chante ‘feel better’. Is it all in her mind? Is she imaging that she feels better because of me – even though I’m really not a medicine?
Medicine, the field of medicine, has a medical view of placebos and placebo responses. We should not be surprised at that. We should also not be surprised that a medical view of placebo response is weak and confusing. Placebo effect is defined by Webster’s as “improvement in the condition of a patient that occurs in response to treatment but cannot be considered due to the specific treatment used”. In simple English it says “A placebo effect is a response to X, but cannot be caused by X.” Does that make sense?
The first step to understanding my placebo effect is to clarify the definitions of ‘effect’ and ‘response’:
effect (Webster’s): “an event, condition, or state of affairs that is produced by a cause“,
response (Webster’s): “something that is done as a reaction to something else”
An effect is what I cause when I pet the cat. I ruffle the fur on her chin. A response is how she reacts, how she feels in response to my action. Dictionary definitions of ‘placebo effect’ are confusing and contradictory because they, and the field of medicine, mix up ‘effect’ and ‘response’. There is no definition in Webster’s, nor in Oxford’s, dictionaries for ‘placebo response’. Instead, they give confusing definitions for ‘placebo effect’. Oxford gives the sample sentence “orthodox doctors dismiss the positive results as a result of the placebo effect“. Does Chante care if ‘orthodox doctors’ dismiss her positive results? She’s a cat. Like all cats, she doesn’t give a damn what people think.
Seriously though, what is a placebo, what is a placebo response? To find the answer we need to look beyond the field of medicine, to healthicine. Medicine studies the body, and dismisses the placebo response (they call it placebo effect) because it is only ‘in the mind’ of the patient. The medical view is limited. They don’t see the whole picture.
What’s the whole picture? Health is bigger than medicine. Healthicine, the hierarchy of healthicine, recognizes that health begins with genetics, nutrients, and cells and rises to tissues, organs, bodily systems, body, minds, spirits and communities. Placebo responses do not come from the ‘mind’ of the subject – they come from the communities.
Chante could rub her own chin, if she wanted. But it wouldn’t help her discomfort, her symptoms. When I rub her chin, our communities connect – she knows that I care, and that makes her feel better.
One of my aunt’s is famous for her response to “How are you?“. She often responds with “All the better for your asking!” She acknowledges the community that is created and fostered by that simple greeting. You can call it ‘placebo response’ if you like, but it’s a real response, as a result of real actions, and appreciation of those actions.
The actual ‘actions’ of a placebo don’t make a lot of difference. We know that people sometimes lash out with words or even physical actions, to get a response, even a negative response, that validates their existence. Violent response is their only placebo.
You know what? Chante is a placebo too. When I rubber her chin, I felt better. She was healthing me as I was healthing her.
to your healthing, tracy
Tracy is the author of two books about healthicine: