In early scientific experiments, scientists would give a drug to a group of test subjects and then report, for instance, that “70% of the participants improved due to this drug.” But some smarty pointed out that some of those people might have gotten better without treatment. Thus, the “control group” was born.
Half of the participants (the “controls”) would get nothing (or some well established intervention the scientists endeavored to compare their new treatment with). Then they could report, “70% improved on our drug and only 20% improved in the control group.” But someone pointed out that perhaps a participant’s expectation that they were getting a new drug (or that they were getting nothing) would influence the outcome.
Thus, the “blind study” was born. Those in the control group would be given a sham treatment that would appear to be real, and participants wouldn’t know which group they were in. This revealed just how significant the “placebo effect” is (a positive health effect due to one’s belief in the [non-existent] treatment). Occasionally people even have negative reactions to sham treatments, which is called a “nocebo effect” – such as a headache or dizziness from a sugar pill – presumably because they believe they’re taking a drug. But someone pointed out that if the scientists administering the drugs and the fake drugs knew which pill they were giving to which group, they might somehow convey belief or disbelief to the recipient, potentially affecting the outcome.
Thus, the “double blind” study was born. Rather than marking the pill bottles as “Miracle Drug” and “Sugar Pills,” perhaps they’d be labeled as “Drug A” and “Drug B,” and neither the scientists nor the participants would know who was getting which until the end of the study. It was also discovered that the treatment group and control group needed to be composed of similar kinds and ages of people, and they needed to be assigned randomly to one or the other.
This progression brought us to the current “gold standard” in biomedical research – the double-blinded randomized controlled trial. (The “gold standard” claim has been hotly disputed lately, but that’s another story). It also raised some big questions about the body-mind connection. Scientists, not usually known for their faith in unseen, immeasurable mechanisms, had to concede that the placebo effect is real. People are able to affect their health – often instantly – through their thoughts and beliefs. Furthermore, we have evidence that people’s feelings about each other (e.g, “You’re lucky you’re in the treatment group,” or “You’re really sick,” or “This isn’t going to do anything”) – despite their best efforts to reveal nothing and remain neutral – also have an impact on others’ health.
While these research concepts were explored at great length in the research portion of my education, they were absent from my clinical training. That is, we didn’t talk about how to apply such ideas in the context of the treatment room. But some years into my practice, I began to notice that my thoughts and energy affected my patients. If I bounded into the room full of energy with a smile and full eye contact, the patient would respond differently than if I walked in slowly, scanning their chart and looking pensive. But that’s just a momentary response, isn’t it? Well, it’s hard to say, but I believe not.
It’s impossible to measure the depth and duration of impact of any given stimulus on a person. Let’s say you watched a movie with a graphic torture scene (aside: I don’t recommend this). The impact of your reaction to that violence might have subtle repercussions on the rest of your life. Luckily, the same could be true of a beautiful or deeply inspiring story. (However, given your probable aversion and resistance to the former, I’d say it’s [unfortunately] likely to cut a deeper groove in your psyche. But that, too, is another story.)
When comparing something as palpable as a Patch Adams persona versus that of a dour clinician who barely regards the patient as a living person, we could easily do an “exit poll” to measure the difference in the patient’s experience. But what about the impact on patients of our thoughts about them – as occurs in single-blinded studies where scientists can’t help thinking, “This might save your life” or, “We’re just wasting what little time you have left”? If scientists are able to skew the results of a study based on their thinking, how are we affecting each other and the world based on our outlook?
I decided to control my thinking to the best of my ability: to avoid buying into my patients’ fears and negative self-images, and to see them as the healthy, happy, whole beings I know they can be. I can’t honestly tell you that no one has ever gotten worse or died since then, but I firmly believe it has made a difference. Sometimes we start with a conversation about how bad everything is for them, and I find myself seeing them with pity and despair before remembering my role. Then I attempt to look through the labels of sick and broken. I focus on their light instead. I see their strength and vitality. I see their gifts. And I watch them change before my eyes.
Now we’ve finally come to the real topic of this newsletter, which is how we save our world. I’ve been encountering lots of articles and conversations about how bad things are today with climate change, water shortages, wildfires, fake news, political corruption, fracking, mass shootings, poverty, high fructose corn syrup, and so on. So, there must be a lot of people out there who see the world as a very sick patient. I know I do sometimes. And if we (the most powerful, most sentient beings) believe this– if we believe that the world is in a dire state – how is the world affected?
It’s not an answerable question, but I’d guess the net effect is negative. Sure, there’s a bit of positive impact when we feel momentarily spurred to act. But the overall effect of viewing the world as “going to hell” can’t be good for our consciousness or the planet itself.
So, this newsletter is a request – an experiment, actually. I ask that we all commit for one week to holding in mind an image of the world as healthy, balanced, light, loving, peaceful, and beautiful. Ask all your friends to do it with you, too. When you catch yourself focusing on the bad, shift your perspective. The worst case scenario is that you miss out on a week’s worth of pessimistic thoughts. Of course, you can continue to take positive action toward helping the world, but see if you can do it from a mindset of “Yes, my beloved world! I believe in you!” rather than, “Oh no, oh no, oh no!” Meanwhile, and as you do this experiment, look for signs that we’re making a difference.
P.S. If all is going well after one week, commit to a month. If all is going well after a month, commit to a year. And if all is going well after a year, commit to the rest of your life.