The Science News report, Imagination Medicine, covers research on how the placebo effect functions in the brain. (Also, google [More Than Just a Sugar Pill].) It confirms my sense that religion also works by way of the placebo effect. 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 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 work. We struggle, either to obtain basic physical needs, or when those are met, our more elusive and never-ending psyche-emotional needs.
I’ve realized lately that the placebo effect seems to work even if I know it’s just a placebo. Perhaps because the need for relief is much deeper than any cognitive assessment I make. I’ve long felt the Taoist paradigm was placebo-like. On the other hand, Taoist views poke 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 the Tao Te Ching, and why its viewpoint is not popular. Folks don’t want to hear that the words their thinking and speaking 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 naturally fall on deaf ears. Why? Perhaps because the faith we place in words and action allows us to escape into our imagined expectations, making language itself a placebo.