I like to think of myself as a reasonably intelligent person. After all, I have had a long life, following a Jesuit education, being married for 60 years, having five children and a career in high-level finance. I am confident that my decisions and choices are well founded. But I am aware that people have an inbuilt tendency to overestimate their intelligence. Why not me? Or you?
I have been looking at the placebo effect. It is a valuable source of knowledge about the way the human mind works. It has the great advantage of enabling us to measure our possible confusions in a reasonably precise way. For example, the effectiveness of a drug for a particular condition can be measured by giving it to some patients while others are given a substance known to have no effect. The health of those given the drug might improve; but so might that of some patients who, unknown to them, were given the replacement. This latter outcome is put down to the placebo effect: thinking that you have been given the correct drug is enough to bring about a degree of recovery.
Even odder than that, there is evidence that for some conditions, telling the patient that the drug given is inert does not prevent an improvement. I can only suppose that going through the routines focuses the mind on the condition and in some way affects the brain. The patient’s fundamental temperament appears to be significant.
Other factors play their part. For instance, placebo injections are more effective than placebo pills; and blue pills are more effective than pink ones. Confidence in the medical team or an admired doctor also contribute. A most dramatic example is the potential effectiveness of sham stem cells injected into the brain in cases of Parkinson’s disease.
Nor should we forget the “nocebo effect”. Here, for example, patients are told that (what is in fact) a neutral cream may lead to more pain in some people. And so it does. You will understand how such phenomena can complicate medical conclusions.
Nor is this confined to medical issues. Athletes can improve their performance by false measurements of their timings, and insomniacs can brighten up when (fictional) tests show that they had slept better than they thought. (You will find a thorough article on placebos on the British Psychological Society site at http://tiny.cc/hzdc7y.)
We are not thinking here merely of interesting facts: we are discovering how the human brain works. What we know, or what we decide, is the outcome of a combination between our brain action and our free will. This column is called Science and Faith for a reason. Every time we act, think or learn, our brain changes. It carries our memories further back than we can actually remember, and even these may be distorted. The influence of our parents, other early carers and our siblings, is largely forgotten, but they travel with us into adulthood.
I assume that I learnt my faith from my parents, and even now I can remember the answers in The Penny Catechism. Add to that all our experiences and decisions throughout life – all of them alter our brains, and thus influence our decisions.
So much for free will? I will certainly defend its existence – but I need to be careful. Most of the time, what are apparently free choices are in fact reactions furnished by my brain. They may well feel free but, unless I am aware of the likely influences playing their part, my freedom may be very limited. I am, as it happens, rather good at convincing myself that whatever I want to do can be justified in some way or another.
There is another side to this, of course, how do we judge the actions of others? We might be thinking of gross activities such as murder, fraud or abuse of the young. Naturally we judge them by our own standards, and that means that they can by no means be tolerated. But how about their standards? We know nothing of their experiences or the details of their brains. They should be punished of course – but perhaps not for their guilt, which we cannot measure, but because their punishment is an unpleasant experience which will be in their brains when faced with the next temptation.
You may think I am going too far – but one day we will all be judged before the throne of God and I, at least, would prefer Him to bear in mind all the subconscious weaknesses which have contributed to any of my sinful activities.