Does thinking make it so?

Last week, I wrote about how advocates of “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) or “integtrative medicine” (IM), having failed to demonstrate efficacy for the vast majority of the unscientific, anti-scientific, and/or pseudosciencitific treatment modalities, many based on prescientific concepts of how human physiology and disease work, have started trying to co-opt placebo effects as their own. In essence, given that the larger and better designed the study the more it is obvious that most CAM therapies do no better than placebo, CAM/IM advocates have decided to embrace their inner placebo and start touting the claim that their therapies work by “harnessing the power of placebo.” To recap briefly, one problem with such an argument is that placebo effects are heterogeneous, including observation bias, regression to the mean, and differences in how patients perceive their symptoms, to name a few. Another problem with such an argument is that placebo doesn’t do anything to impact the pathophysiology of disease or conditions, and it’s often arguable whether it even impacts subjective symptoms that much in many conditions. Finally, CAM/IM advocates often ascribe near mystical powers to placebo, a sort of “mind over matter” or “mind over body” view that gives the false impression that just by thinking happy, positive thoughts, you can have a major impact on your disease.

I was reminded of that recent post when I came across a post that epitomized just the sort of thinking that is so prevalent in CAM/IM. It’s by someone named Andre Evans and entitled Proof that Your Own Thoughts and Beliefs Can Cause Self-Healing. It’s basically a woo-fest of an article that directly invokes placebo effects as “evidence” that, if you just think about it hard enough, you can “heal yourself” of almost anything:

Numerous studies abound on the nature of the mind-body relationship, and how your mind can affect your biological functions. Much like how a hypochondriac may convince himself that he is sick, and subsequently ‘find’ (or make up) symptoms of his illness, a negative or even apathetic mindset may induce you into a lesser state of health. Conversely, having a generally positive disposition or outlook with regards to your health may actually make you healthier.

In clinical studies where patients are given placebos, they often will respond positively to them due to the expectation that they are receiving some form of beneficial medicine. Although not talking about placebo sugar pills specifically, this kind of self-treatment can be seen in one case where a woman’s own thoughts made her lose nearly 112 pounds.

Evans concludes:

The power of the mind is immense. Its influence can literally bend reality to match its perspective. You can often influence a situation more by thinking about it meticulously, as opposed to simply acting. If you believe something to be true, you will conform the world around you to match this expectation.

If you believe that your illness is getting worse, it will probably get worse. If you believe that your treatment is helping you, you could actually cause massive self-healing to occur. Assuming a disposition will automatically prejudice your mind, and therefore cause your body to react either positively or negatively.

This is pure magical thinking, a mystical, religious belief that, if you only have enough faith, you can have whatever you want and you can heal yourself. Would that it were so! Unfortunately, it’s not. Sure, having a positive attitude can make one feel better about his or her situation, and having a negative attitude can sometimes get in the way of doing what needs to be done to treat a condition, but it’s a huge exaggeration to claim that the mind can “literally bend reality” to match its perspective. If that were the case, why can’t I bend reality to guarantee that I live to 120? Or why can’t I “bend reality” to make myself a billionaire? Why can’t I think my way to being 25 again? This sort of thinking is at the level of a three or four year old, who cant’ always tell the difference between fantasy and reality. Normally, we grow up; CAM/IM thought of this sort strikes me as a severe case of arrested development.

People sometimes think I’m exaggerating when I talk about CAM advocates arguing extreme versions of “mind over matter,” but I’m not. If you don’t believe how far this thinking goes in a lot of CAM, I think it’s instructive to show you an example from–who else?–that quack apologist supreme, Joe Mercola, who wrote a post entitled How your thoughts can cause or cure cancer. It begins with this video:

This video, not surprisingly, is chock full of misinformation. For instance, it claims that no cancer gene has ever been found. ORLY? How about BRCA1 and BRCA2? Or BRAF mutations? Or one of a number of oncogenes and tumor suppressors that have been discovered in the last 40 years? Sure, it turns out that cancer is more complicated than what we originally thought in that individual genes are usually (but not always) the cause and that there is not usually a straight progression of genes that are mutated in order to result in cancer progression. However, that is an entirely different thing than there being no cancer genes. It also uses and abuses the concept of epigenetics (the regulation of gene expression by factors other than the genome, such as methylation of genes,chromatin structure, and other things that can regulate DNA structure and function) to claim that cancer is “optional–not determined by genetics, nor an unavoidable fact” and that “your mind, your beliefs–not defective genes–create a ripple effect that ‘turns on’ cancer cells.”

Yes, it’s not just placebo effects, but your mind is apparently so powerful that it can control the expression of oncogenes and tumor suppressors to result in cancer. According to this view, your “genetic blueprint” is not the problem” but rather “how your cells interpret the directions of your mind.” In fact, this view even goes so far as to claim that spontaneous remissions of cancer are “tied to having a profound change in a perception or belief about life.” I kid you not. What this boils down to is the overarching claim that your mind can create disease and that, through the placebo effect, you can heal yourself. In fact, Joe Mercola makes explicit what is stated in the video:

Your beliefs are energy fields, and they are working to promote either health or disease in your body right now. Which one is up to you.

When it comes to the ability of your mind to heal you, there are NO limitations. The sky is the limit.

Got that? There are NO limitations! One wonders why if that’s true, amputees can’t think their way to growing a new limb. Yes, I know, it’s the same rationale behind the sarcastic question directed at faith healers, namely Why won’t God heal amputees? However, the question applies here just as well. If there are truly “no limits” to the power of the mind and if the mind can control epigenetics so profoundly, then it should be possible, through the mind directing the epigenetics of the cells at the end of the amputated stump, to reprogram the cells to become embryonic stem cells again and then to grow and differentiate into the cells necessary to regenerate a new limb, just like a salamander. The genetic blueprint is there; the genetic program to turn a cell back into a stem cell is just dormant and presumably can be reactivated. Indeed, how to do that is an active area of research. So, if all it takes is changing the gene expression of a cell, then why can’t we think our way to new limbs? Unfortunately, we never see a person thinking himself a new limb. There are other examples. For instance, if there are “no limits” to what the mind can do, why can’t patients in end stage organ failure do a little epigenetic programming and regenerate and thereby repair the failing organ?

Yes, yes, I know. It’s difficult. So difficult that no case of limb regeneration due to thought alone has been reported, nor has a case of someone thinking their way to a new organ.

Maybe it’s the fault of those nasty skeptics:

However, there is something you should know. Other people can influence your perception of things and ultimately your ability to express your true beliefs.

So, perhaps you feel thrilled to have learned this information, but when you share it with your spouse or coworkers, they will not feel the same way. Their negativity could then easily transfer to you and cause you to doubt your mind’s healing abilities (thus making your mind unable to manifest healing).

You heard it right. All those negative vibes of skeptics are what’s standing between you and the ability to think your way to perfect health!

Unfortunately, this sort of thinking completely pervades a lot of “alternative medicine,” just as it pervades The Secret. Such thinking is profoundly infantile in that it presumes that wishing makes it so, just as a child thinks that his thoughts make reality what he wants it to be. When you come right down to it, it’s a lot like religion. But what happens when the wish doesn’t work? What happens when wishing doesn’t make it so? What happens when mind doesn’t control matter? Blaming “negative energy” delivered by skeptics keeping you down only goes so far. There comes a time when you have no choice but to face reality.

You can find this sort of thinking in reiki, which is basically faith healing substituting Eastern mysticism for Christianity; the so-called “German New Medicine,” which postulates that cancer and serious illness are due to “unresolved childhood trauma” and that you have to recognize and resolve such traumas in order to heal yourself; and Biologie Totale, which is the bastard offspring of the German New Medicine. All of these alt-med modalities postulate that disease is either a reaction to emotional trauma and that you can heal it with your mind. What is the whole area of “energy healing” but the idea that, if you just have enough faith, you can heal either yourself or others? Sure, alt-med enthusiasts gussy it up in language that co-opts (and corrupts) the concepts of epigenetics and placebo effects to make it seem as though anything is possible, but when you come right now to it, what we’re looking at is far more religious in nature than scientific. Maybe I was closer than I thought when I referred to CAM as the “new paternalism.”

After all, what is more paternalistic than religion?