Deepak Chopra, placebo effects, and The Secret

If there’s one thing that goes back to the very beginning of this blog (or at least it started in the first year), it’s having a bit of fun with Deepak Chopra. I realize that to some it might seem like shooting the proverbial fish in a barrel. With a rocket launcher. On the other hand, I like to look at it this way. Deepak Chopra has a multimillion dollar alternative medicine and “quantum consciousness” empire milking the credulous to buy attend his lectures, buy his DVDs and books, and even to buy his video games. He’s on television all the time, including appearances on Dr. Oz’s show and on Oprah Winfrey’s show back when she had her regular talk show. I’m just an itty-bitty blogger who reaches a few thousand readers a day at most. While that is definitely quite respectable as far as medical/skeptical bloggers go, compared to Chopra’s reach it’s the proverbial ant compared to Chopra’s media elephant. So, because Chopra has so much influence, I consider it more important than for many other purveyors of woo to critically examine the nonsense that Chopra lays down on such a regular basis and show why it’s nonsense. Indeed, never forget, I was the one who first coined the term “Choprawoo.” More importantly, if there’s anyone who personifies the similarities between alternative medicine and religion, it’s Deepak Chopra, with his “universal consciousness” (i.e., yet another name for God, but all gussied up with quantum quackery).

This time around, Chopra is delving into placebo medicine. Regular readers of this blog should be aware that promoters of “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM), a.k.a., “integrating quackery with science-based medicine and calling it “integrative medicine,” have latched onto placebo effects the way a wolf latches on to its prey, sometimes going so far as to call it the “powerful placebo.” The reason is quite simple. Even woo-meisters like Chopra have noticed that the more rigorous and large the clinical trial of their favorite CAM modalities, the less distinguishable from placebo effects they become. In other words, the vast majority of CAM is placebo medicine. So what’s a quack to do, when faced with a growing and persuasive body of evidence consistent with the contention that his favorite modalities don’t do anything, that they function primarily as placebo? Well, like Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan on Medicare, they decide that the best defense of an indefensible position is a good offense and embrace the placebo. Instead of arguing that their quackery has any specific healing effects, they claim that it “harnesses the power of placebo” to induce “natural healing” or (one of their favorite terms) “mind-body healing.” So it is that I saw Deepak Chopra try to do the same thing. The difference is that he puts a somewhat different spin on placebo medicine in an article entitled I Will Not Be Pleased – Your Health and the Nocebo Effect. Chopra starts with the usual woo-ful whine about how conventional medicine discounts placebo effects:

For decades the placebo effect has existed basically as a nuisance, so far as the medical profession is concerned. Some people benefit from being given a sugar pill instead of an actual drug. This remarkable result cannot be marketed, however. It doesn’t fall within the ethics of medicine to prescribe fake drugs. Therefore, a doctor in practice, whose training has drummed into him that “real” medicine means drugs and surgery, will shrug off the placebo effect as psychosomatic, or “it’s all in your head.”

This attitude shuts down a fascinating possibility, that a patient’s expectations plays a major role in being well or getting sick.

The placebo effect is real medicine, because it triggers the body’s healing system. One could argue that this is the best medicine, in fact, since: a. drugs do not trigger the healing system and b. the placebo effect has no side effects. Staying well means that the body is taking care of itself – and you – through a feedback loop of chemical messages. Circulating throughout the bloodstream, lymphatic system, and central nervous system, chemical messages are crucial to the healing system, because they keep every cell in communication with every other.

Yes, just as I’ve been discussing so recently, this is nothing more than alternative medicine as The Secret or, as I put it before a while back, viewing placebo effects as nothing more than wish fulfillment, a pure manifestation of The Secret. So far, Chopra’s just using standard alt-med placebo medicine boilerplate. If you think it hard enough, you can heal yourself. Placebo effects are nothing more than The Law of Attraction in action: If you want healing badly enough you’ll get it.

So, perhaps it shouldn’t be too surprising that the negative aspect of the Law of Attraction, the truly vile part of it is that, if you are sick, it means that you’re “attracting” negativity and sickness to yourself. In Chopra’s world, this means the nocebo effect:

Like it or not, every thought, decision, and action influences this feedback loop. The “or not” is important. Unwittingly, we damage the body’s natural state of health with negative input. The fact that this input comes from the brain means that thoughts, moods, and expectations, however intangible, get translated into chemical messages just as surely as molecules of aspirin or glucose. You and I bear the responsibility of sending positive messages to our cells as opposed to negative ones.

See what I mean? A clearer statement of the the Law of Attraction (although Chopra doesn’t call it that) is hard to imagine, with the Law of Attraction being placebo and nocebo effects. If you think happy, healing thoughts, you’ll be healthy. If you don’t, if you think unhappy thoughts, if you have the slightest bit of negativity, the slightest negative mood (no matter how intangible, as Chopra himself says), you’re screwed. Chopra said so. You bear the responsibility for it. Chopra said so, and the result is the negative energy being transmitted to your cells

Or, as he puts it:

The key to the placebo effect is that the patient expects a good outcome, while in the nocebo effect the expectation is of a bad outcome: I will be pleased versus I will not be pleased. Set aside the medical implications. We make judgments about all of our experiences every day, expecting them to turn out well or badly. Does this point to a holistic placebo versus nocebo effect? We’ll explore that possibility in the next post.

Oh, goody. Is that a promise? I’m always happy to know that there will be more blogging material provided to me, that is after I stop laughing. After all, just consider: One of the main points that Chopra makes in this post is his claim that placeboes have no side effects. Yet, the bulk of the article is about nocebo effects. What are nocebo effects but negative side effects from placeboes? He even discusses a case of someone who allegedly became very sick from nocebo effects. Some “perfectly safe” mental healing! I’m telling ya, ya can’t make stuff like this up.

In the meantime while I’m waiting for Chopra to continue his pontifications and bloviations on placebo effects, I suppose I should be grateful for one thing. I suppose I should be grateful that Chopra didn’t invoke quantum physics. In fact, I’m shocked that he didn’t. Think of the possibilities! Quantum placebos. Just remember, you read it here first. I fully expect to see it in Chopra’s next article.