The placebo effect has been known about for centuries, and is the basis for the success of medical quackery and peddlers of snake oil. Prescribing a pill, or surgery even, that has no actual effect while telling the patient it has, will alleviate symptoms in over a third of patients. Some doctors believe the placebo effect is purely psychological, that although the patient believes he has improved, he hasn’t at all. This view claims the response is a result of conditioning where patients have come to expect an improvement after taking medication.
The problem with this theory is that research shows that the improvements experienced by subjects on a placebo are measurable. A study was done in 2002 at UCLA on a group of patients with depression. Those receiving a placebo who had reported feeling better demonstrated an even greater amount of positive brain activity than those on the drug, and in places the drug did not reach. Placebos are also thought to trigger the release of endorphins, causing the sensation of pain to decrease. It is clear then that the belief of the subject has a direct physical effect on the body.
Beliefs about what it is to be old come to us through a filter of other people’s experiences and expectations. If we accept that infirmity and death around 80 is inevitable, every time new facts come to light to support that belief, we assimilate them. We can observe this process as it happens every time we receive new information about ageing or about an old person someone knows. If someone or something – such as this website – calls these beliefs into question, we may reject them if they do not fit what we have accepted as true. The beliefs of a society provide a blueprint for what it becomes – this is most obvious in the creation of parallel societies of immigrants, or ghetto-isation, where migrants who have left their home societies for a new life recreate the society they left behind, even becoming fossilised versions of it while their country of origin has moved on.
The power of belief is what underpins the claim that faith can move mountains. When Jesus healed someone in the gospels, over and over again he attributes it to that person’s belief: the woman in the crowd healed from hemorrhaging – ‘your faith has made you well’ – the two blind men following Jesus – ‘do you believe that I can do this?’ – the blind beggar on the road to Jericho – ‘your faith has healed you’. He did no miracles in Nazareth because of the people’s unbelief.
Our beliefs and convictions come from experience, sometimes from our earliest experiences, and are soaked in the emotions that surrounded those experiences so that picking the beliefs apart can be painful and difficult. “I still recall a boy calling me a fat cow and to go on a diet,” said Margaret. “I’m sure he’s forgotten, but I can describe everything about that classroom even today 50 years on.” At a very deep level we can believe we are unattractive, unintelligent or uninteresting. Few people question the strong impact of experience on convictions such as these, but almost no one extends the idea to areas such as our health and how we age.
Our beliefs affect our appearance. If we think we look old we will. If we buy into the archetype of “fifty”, “sixty” or “eighty”, imprinted on our mind by hundreds of people who reached that age before us, our physical appearance will adjust to reflect that archetype. We must not underestimate the power of the spirit beneath the flesh – it has been documented again and again that the minute the soul left the body, the corpse no longer resembled the person who once inhabited it.
Our beliefs – as documented by the placebo effect – also affect our physical condition. For this reason it is imperative that we use affirmations – quietly to ourselves and also in conversation with others – to gain mastery over our bodies. Examples of this are saying, “I had backache earlier on but it’s getting better now,” (even if it’s not) rather than, “If this gets any worse I’m going to have to take the day off,” (encouraging poor health in oneself to obtain something desirable). We can affirm, “The diagnosis for this disease is poor but fortunately I am in the percentage likely to overcome it,” (even if we have no idea whether statistics actually back us up, which doesn’t matter since they are only statistics!). This is taking control.
We cannot change the things that others have created in the world we live in, but we can change the things we believe about the world so that it rearranges itself into one more fitting someone who stays ageless. Martin Luther King once said that every man must do two things alone : his own believing and his own dying. Let us make sure this is true for us.
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