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Spellcraft: Level Four



Placebo Theory


The placebo is an inert substance that has no therapeutic value, meaning that any changes observed in a patient who has been treated with a placebo act through a psychological mechanism. This is thought to be due to the top–down neural control of physiology (the role of the brain in determining the physical health of a patient). In light of this, double-blind placebo-controlled studies are considered to be the gold standard for clinical trials. Thus, the very foundation of modern medicine depends on the placebo: its efficacy is scientific dogma.


The placebo has been described as “it works because they believe it works,” yet even belief of the patient in the efficacy of the placebo appears to be dispensable, as it works even if the patient is aware that they are taking a placebo, albeit to a lesser extent (Beecher, 1955; Blease et al., 2019; Charlesworth et al., 2017). Interestingly, children are more susceptible to placebos than adults (Rheims et al., 2008).


What if each of us could make the symptoms of an illness disappear? Cast a spell so powerful it would actually rid us of pain, help us walk, or breathe better? For centuries placebos have been thought of as fake medicine involving trickery and deceit, but science has proven that placebos can have powerful – and real – effects on our mind and body.


New research is proving that everything from sugar pills, to saline injections, to sham surgery, can have real healing power. Placebos won’t shrink tumors or cure diabetes, but they can be effective in subjective conditions – where self-appraisal plays a role. And, neuroscience is revealing how our bodies’ response to treatment is heavily influenced by our expectations, prior experiences, our beliefs, and the social cues that surround us.


All kinds of myths regarding placebos are being shattered. One long-held belief is that placebos only work if the patient is deceived into thinking he or she is getting real medication. But there is growing evidence that's simply not the case. For example, in Boston a woman named Linda is a patient who experienced relief from the symptoms of a painful medical condition, even though she knew she was taking sugar pills.


The other great myth is that placebos only work on people who are gullible. But whether we respond to a placebo might well be written into our DNA, and have nothing to do with our vulnerabilities. There exists patients of all ages, with a range of conditions, who have all benefited from placebos.


On esteemed university campuses across North America, researchers continue to uncover new, and potentially therapeutic, applications of the placebo effect. They are giving an exciting new legitimacy to what was once thought to be “all in the head.”


The placebo effect has been studied and documented and published in respected medical journals, including this study titled, Aspects of psychodynamic neuropsychiatry III: magic spells, the placebo effect, and neurobiology


In another example, a 2011 study of asthmatics revealed that while placebos had no impact on chemical markers, patients reported feeling better even when given fake medications. The takeaway on that study, is that there’s something therapeutic about the act of treatment itself, the ritual of care and the reassuring bond between doctor and patient that makes people feel better, whether or not their treatment includes pills or drugs with an active ingredient.


The placebo effect isn’t just about the sugar pill, it’s the context in which it’s embedded. For patient-centered outcomes, just caring for people and giving treatment carries a significant punch for relieving illness and reducing complaints.


Another person describes his own experience of chest pains, relieved, as it turns out by a reassuring visit to a trusted doctor. "...that afternoon, we engaged in exactly the type of ritual that, according to his doctor, will have to play a critical role in the future of American health care. And, at least in this instance, it would have been hard to argue that it didn't work.



WHAT DETERMINES THE STRENGTH OF A PLACEBO?


It has been found that the more a placebo resembles a medication known to the patient, the more efficacious it is – for example, if a sugar pill closely resembles aspirin it will be better at reducing headaches than, say, giving a patient an M&M and telling them it will cure their headache. In addition to this, various other stimuli can also impact the strength of a placebo effect including the color, shape and taste.


A meta-analysis found the colors of drugs was correlated with different efficacies, however a consistent trend could not be detected: for example in one study the placebo that worked best was the one that was in the color the patient preferred, while another study found that red, orange and yellow medications have a stimulant effect, whereas blue and green have a tranquillizing effect (de Craen et al., 1996). A brightly colored pill works better than a white pill, two pills work better than one, capsules works better than pills, and injections work better than pills or a capsules (Droulers & Roullet, 2005). In addition a placebo that is administered in a hospital setting is more efficacious than one that is not, thus the more convincing the placebo and the environment, the larger the placebo effect (Benedetti et al., 2011).


The placebo can also have a greater effect if it is administered after an effective medicine, for example if a painkiller is administered at one point followed by a placebo that is similar to the painkiller at another time, the placebo will be more effective at reducing pain than if it was the first time it was administered (Amanzio & Benedetti, 1999; Amanzio et al., 2001; Batterman, 1966; Batterman & Lower, 1968; Colloca & Benedetti, 2005; Colloca & Benedetti, 2006; Herrnstein, 1962; Laska & Sunshine, 1973; Sunshine et al., 1964). Consequently, it has been suggested in the field of psychology that placebos have a learned component, likely due to Pavlovian conditioning, reinforced expectations and social learning (Meissner et al., 2011a).



WHAT CAN PLACEBOS DO PHYSIOLOGICALLY?


Placebos cause changes in neurobiological signaling pathways (Marchant, 2016) and have measurable physiological effects (Meissner, 2011) on:

  • heart rate

  • blood pressure: including effecting coronary blood flow and vasovagal syncope (fainting)

  • gastrointestinal tract: including contractions, nausea, motion sickness, bowel motility, functional gastrointestinal disorders, the pulmonary system (especially asthma)

  • immune responses: such as psoriasis, allergic rhinitis, lupus erythematosus


It is no surprise, then, that there are those who argue that placebos should be prescribed by clinicians as a part of routine medical care (Marchant, 2016; Stafford, 2011) and, indeed, it seems that most doctors in Germany already do (Meissner et al., 2011b).



CRITICISMS OF THE PLACEBO EFFECT


At this point, it is important to mention that there are some dissenters challenging the dogma of placebo efficacy (Hróbjartsson & Gøtzsche, 2010). Alternative explanations have been suggested including regression to the mean, conditional switching of placebo treatment, spontaneous improvement, fluctuation of symptoms, additional treatment, scaling bias, answers of politeness, irrelevant response variables, experimental subordination, conditioned answers, neurotic or psychotic misjudgment, misquotation and more (Kienle & Kiene, 1997).


If we were to take the conservative approach and conclude that the jury is still out on the efficacy of the placebo, it’s important to note that even dissenting authors themselves admit to the existence of psychosomatic effects for some diseases such as asthma (Kienle & Kiene, 1996).



MAGICK AS PLACEBO


Placebos have been described as comprising meaningful symbols, words, actions and settings – ‘elements that actively shape the patient’s brain’ – thus optimizing language, visual cues, expectations and beliefs may increase the efficacy of placebo effects (Benedetti et al., 2011; Raz & Harris, 2016). The placebo effect is not thought to be due to the substance itself (e.g. saline solution or a sugar pill), but rather due to the psychosocial context surrounding the administration of the placebo to the patient (Price et al., 1999).


Therefore, given that placebos (a) work, (b) can have different strengths depending on their aesthetic, the environment and their associations and (c) have detectable physiological effects, many Witches employ placebo in either their daily life or at some point in their practice. However, instead of “placebo” they of course refer to it as “magick, spellcraft or ritual” – components of a complete spiritual path that they practice, which you and I know as “Witchcraft.”


For example, if a Witch us having difficulty with dissociation, they may cast a grounding spell and a healing spell – in this case the spell is a placebo that is dressed in a particular aesthetic that appeals to the practitioner and has deep, ingrained meaning for them – the ‘witchy’ aesthetic if you will. The spell itself employs equipment drenched in symbolism that they have enriched over time through study, repetition, expectation, learning, conditioning and association. Whether the Witch believes the spell will work or not is irrelevant because belief is used as a tool, thus they suspend their disbelief for the purposes of achieving the magickal goal.


Confused? It's OK. These concepts are not easy to grasp at first.


It is a paradox. Many successful Witches do not believe in magick in a supernatural sense, yet they do believe in magick in their own way. For these practitioners, they know that magick will work at least as well as a placebo, because they know that a placebo works...


(a) even if you don’t believe it,


(b) although it works better if you do believe it,


(c) and it works even better than that if you make it convincing,


(d) and if you dress it up in a way that appeals to you in terms of your personal preference and symbolic language.


This approach to magick may work especially well for the science-forward Witch, those who have backgrounds in medicine, psychology or tend toward non-theism, atheism or skepticism.


If we operate from the paradigm that magick is a placebo then by definition the efficacy of magick will depend on the extent to which the act has meaning for the practitioner. I believe this to be true for all forms of spirituality – in my view, there is no single form of spirituality that befits all the peoples of our planet. As a consequence, spiritual anarchy and spiritual sovereignty for every being in this world is an integral part of my personal ethos. I believe that those of us who are interested in walking a spiritual path must find a flavor of spirituality that speaks to our specific souls, and context, cultural relativity, aesthetics, personal preference and experience are some considerations in choosing (or being called by) a particular path.



MAGICKAL GUIDELINES, MANTRAS & PERSONAL TRUTHS


If this is resonating with you, consider the following ideas for inspiration, insight & wisdom.


Magick has an effect on me, the practitioner, and I believe sometimes it has an effect on my environment. I can both believe in my magick having an effect on things outside of me and believe that it could be just a placebo. I can admit that I don't know what I don't know.


Some things really just boil down to belief, and belief is very much based on what we think, and not as much based on what we know. I like to stay open and flexible so that when new information, ideas or evidence get presented I have the ability to adjust my thinking to incorporate new information into my views and practices. I aim to always grow, expand and take up space in my world rather than feel threated, shut down, and stay small.


I'm comfortable holding two opposing truths at the same time, and I think the very best, most effective Witches are, too.

Even if you believe your magick extends only as far as you personally, and not to your environment, you can have an effect on yourself, allowing you to cope better with your environment or empowering you to change the environment through direct action.


Magick is personal. Something that works for me or you may not work well for someone else: another’s personal preferences and language of meaning and symbolism including cultural context will be different.


I do not advocate that placebo, magick or spirituality be used as a replacement for demonstrably effective interventions, but I do think there is room for these practices to enrich and improve individual lives where appropriate. Most importantly, I believe in the right of all people to embrace a path that appeals to them as long as it does not infringe on the rights, dignities and freedoms of others.


 

A DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVE

 

The placebo theory in a magickal practice suggests that magick works because we expect it to work in the same way that a placebo effect can be achieved by administering a sugar pill and telling the patient what effect it will have.


It is important to note here that “placebo effect” does not mean “fake”. In the popular consciousness, it’s become common to associate placebo with false results, but this is not the case. Rather, the placebo effect is when we create real, tangible changes without a physical reason for those changes occurring. The lack of an obvious cause does not change the fact that results were achieved.


The placebo theory suggests that, like the sugar pill, the mechanisms of magick (ritual, spellwork, herbs, tools, etc.) are not the source of magickal results but more of a theater performance that we are creating to achieve results through expectation.


This performance communicates some kind of expected result to the subconscious mind, and so the subconscious produces a result. This essentially means that under this theory, all magick is produced by the mind of the spell caster. Your herbs, your tools, your ritual actions, everything else is not actually involved in the energetic process of making magick but are just there as props to create the desired subconscious shift.


While this theory can be useful, it can also cause issues, especially for newer practitioners. By its very nature, this theory of magick is very limiting. If everything you do is simply a result of subconscious energetic shifts within your mind, then it follows that magick affecting the self will be far more powerful while magick affecting other people will be weaker. This can dissuade the magick worker from using their magick to its fullest potential, focusing on magick that is designed to change only themselves rather than working magick that really changes the circumstances and events of their lives. Magick performed in this way can become a sort of magickal therapy through theater.


The tools, herbs, and actions of magick quickly lose their meaning and weight and the practitioner focuses too heavily on changing themselves which can become an unhealthy obsession with “fixing” the subconscious mind.


With that said, shadow work, inner work, and higher-self work are all worthy and should not be neglected by the magickal practitioner. These are healthy and necessary for a successful practice.


Don’t get me wrong, this theory definitely has its uses. The primary objection to it is in the dogmatic adherence observed in some people. Because this theory is rooted in some level of science, it is tempting for people to want to shove all magick under this explanation and call it a day. It may give those who are prone to doubt some level of security and a way to explain their practice when confronted with the purely scientific method of thinking widely taught today. This is a crutch, though.


The placebo theory is just that, a theory, It is not a proven explanation for magick and it honestly doesn’t even explain every aspect of magick that the regular practitioner will observe and experience, so it is actually only a partial theory.


Despite this, it has somehow gained a large amount of traction and is being taught as gospel truth by many. This assertion that the placebo effect explains everything and that we now know what magick is destroys all room for exploration and experimentation further into these mysteries. This dogmatic adherence to a single unproven theory is one of the most unscientific approaches you can take to magick!


And unfortunately, it’s become common to bully newer practitioners into accepting this theory as fact when they’re still unable to think critically about the subject for lack of information.


So, how do we make use of this theory and interact with it as curious, experimental Witches without falling prey to this dogmatic obsession? We view this theory more as a tool in our arsenal. Remember that as theorists, our job is to find ways that seemingly contradictory occurrences can be equally true. It is perfectly reasonable, then, to think of the placebo effect as one method in which energy and magick function without necessarily discounting those things that contradict it. This is particularly useful in troubleshooting your magick! When magick can be both a symphony of energies and actions combined through ritual AND a process that involves that subconscious mind, you are able to see the magickal interplay from all angles.



Confirmation Bias

Where do your beliefs and opinions come from? If you're like most people, you feel that your convictions are rational, logical, and impartial, based on the result of years of experience and objective analysis of the information you have available.


In reality, all of us are susceptible to a tricky problem known as a confirmation bias. Our beliefs are often based on paying attention to the information that upholds them—while at the same time tending to ignore the information that challenges them.


Understanding Confirmation Bias

A confirmation bias is a type of cognitive bias that occurs when we selectively notice or focus on evidence which tends to support the things we already believe or want to be true while ignoring that evidence which would serve to disconfirm those beliefs or ideas. This bias plays a stronger role when it comes to those beliefs which are based upon prejudice, faith, or tradition, rather than on empirical evidence.


For example, if we already believe or want to believe that someone can speak to our deceased relatives, then we will notice when they say things which are accurate or pleasant but forget how often that person says things which are simply incorrect.


Confirmation biases impact how we gather information, but they also influence how we interpret and recall information. For example, people who support or oppose a particular issue will not only seek information to support it, they will also interpret news stories in a way that upholds their existing ideas. They will also remember details in a way that reinforces these attitudes.



Impact of Confirmation Bias

In the 1960s, cognitive psychologist Peter Cathcart Wason conducted a number of experiments known as Wason's rule discovery task. He demonstrated that people have a tendency to seek information that confirms their existing beliefs. Unfortunately, this type of bias can prevent us from looking at situations objectively. It can also influence the decisions we make and lead to poor or faulty choices.


During an election season, for example, people tend to seek positive information that paints their favored candidates in a good light. They will also look for information that casts the opposing candidate in a negative light.


By not seeking out objective facts, interpreting information in a way that only supports their existing beliefs, and only remembering details that uphold these beliefs, they often miss important information. These details and facts might have otherwise influenced their decision on which candidate to support.


Expert Observations

In his book Research in Psychology: Methods and Design, C. James Goodwin gives an example of confirmation bias as it applies to extrasensory perception.


"Persons believing in extrasensory perception (ESP) will keep close track of instances when they were 'thinking about Mom, and then the phone rang and it was her!' Yet they ignore the far more numerous times when (a) they were thinking about Mom and she didn't call and (b) they weren't thinking about Mom and she did call.


"They also fail to recognize that if they talk to Mom about every two weeks, their frequency of 'thinking about Mom' will increase near the end of the two-week-interval, thereby increasing the frequency of a 'hit.'"


As Catherine A. Sanderson points out in her book Social Psychology, confirmation bias also helps form and re-confirm stereotypes we have about people: "