The Science News report, Imagination Medicine, covers recent research on how the placebo effect works in the brain. It confirms my sense that religion works its wonders through the placebo effect as well. Consider this excerpt from the report for example,
It all boils down to expectation. If you expect pain to diminish, the brain releases natural painkillers. If you expect pain to get worse, the brain shuts off the processes that provide pain relief. Somehow, anticipation trips the same neural wires as actual treatment does.
“It all boils down to expectation,” he says, and expectation is the currency religion uses — expectations of social connection, virtue, wisdom, salvation, escape from death and suffering.
Most important is how religion provides the promise of social connection for fellow believers. As they say, misery loves company. Let’s face it, life is struggle, either to obtain basic physical needs, or when those are met, our more elusive psyche-emotional needs.
I’ve realized lately that the placebo effect seems to work even if one knows it’s just a placebo. Perhaps because the need for relief is much deeper than any cognitive assessment we make. I’ve long felt Taoism was placebo-like. On the other hand, Taoism pokes holes in the placebo sustaining rhetoric of religion. Indeed, the first line of its ‘bible’, the Tao Te Ching, begins with the disclaimer: The way that can be spoken of is not the constant way.
I imagine this is why I can trust Taoism, and why Taoism is not popular. Folks generally don’t want to hear that thinking, speaking, and the words upon which these rest are unreliable. Chapter 41’s the way conceals itself in being nameless and chapter 2’s keep to the deed that consists in taking no action and practice the teaching that uses no words are also deal breakers for most people. Our fondly held “expectations” depend on the faith we place on words, thinking, speaking, and action.