The Architecture of Life: November 2009

The Architecture of Life - Christopher K. Travis

Monday, November 30, 2009

Placebo Effect - Ancient Pain Reliever

For decades, scientists have tried to understand the mysterious power of what is called the "placebo effect."

A wide variety of studies have found when patients suffering from a wide variety of mental and physical disorders improve after being given placebos they believe are powerful and effective drugs.

If they truly believe - even when in reality the "drug" they are given is a mere sugar pill - they regularly report a significant reduction in symptoms.

I have suggested in the past that placebo studies prove how powerfully we are influenced - not just emotionally but physiologically - by how we percieve the world around us.

In my design practice - where I employ psychological techniques to help my clients achieve the emotional experience they desire in their homes - I have long noticed that my clients' emotional experience of their home environment is highly related to their views of reality.

Special artifacts and architectural conditions in their homes can have powerful and long-lasting psychological effects.

I have seen such conditions reduce - or stimulate - anxiety many times.
A new study published by Cell Press in the August 27th issue of the journal Neuron, provides fascinating insight into how and why simply expecting a treatment to reduce pain can produce the actual physical effect.

The placebo effect - it seems to me - offers a clue that points to how we might create therapeutic environments.

I have suggested that the placebo effect should be harnessed as a therapy - and pointed to the fact that believers in a wide variety of ancient "faith" systems also claim similar effects - as have modern scientists who study mind/body medicine.

This new study's finding is that the "placebo effect" involves pain control pathways in the human brainstem, the part of the brain that is continuous with the spinal cord.

In other words, it impacts an ancient part of our brain which we share with many other species.

So it may turn out that "having a positive attitude" proved to be adaptive long before human beings evolved.

"Placebo analgesia" if a phrase that refers to an individual's relief from pain following administration of a chemically inert substance (often a sugar pill) and is due to a person's belief that a potent pain medication was administered instead.

It is a direct test of the power of belief to impact what have previously been seen as chemical and physiological disorders. If those conditions are as "physical" as they appear - why are disorders as extreme as schizophrenia and chronic pain impacted by the mere perception of the patient?

Endogenous opioids, which are naturally produced by the brain in small amounts and play a key role in the relief of pain and anxiety, have been implicated in placebo analgesia.

"It has been hypothesized that placebo analgesia also recruits the opioidergic descending pain control system, which inhibits pain processing in the spinal cord and, therefore, subsequently reduces pain-related responses in the brain, leading to a decreased pain experience," explains lead study author Falk Eippert from the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf in Germany.

Eippert and colleagues observed that, under placebo, cortical areas interacted with brain stem structures implicated in pain control and that these interactions were dependent on endogenous opioids and were related to the strength of experienced placebo effects.

So there you have it. Another powerful example that the percieve hard boundaries we assume exist between our bodies, our minds and our environment are much "fuzzier" than we might think.

So not just your home is in your head - so is your pain - and sometimes all we have to do to powerfully impact those experiences is to actually believe we can.