When the pharmaceutical industry finally implodes, it will not be from the many unlawful death lawsuits against them (although there are many), and it will not be from the increasing disclosure by doctors of payments they received from them for doing presumably unbiased research (although disclosure requirements are getting stronger). The pharmaceutical industry will implode from the simple act of customers taking their mental wellbeing into their own hands through increased knowledge of neuroscience.

Do you think I’m kidding?

Scientists are finding out more and more about how the brain works—and turning that information increasingly over to the public which, in turn, uses it to promote its own health.

Let’s take an interesting example that I read in the May 28, 2011 issue of the Wall Street Journal. Researchers at Yale and the University of Colorado found that when experimental subjects held a warm object, they later would rate a character in a story as warmer than people who held a cold object would rate the character. Holding a warm object also led to a higher likelihood of experimental subjects donating the money they received from the research to charity.

The same article noted that waiters get bigger tips on sunny days than on cloudy ones and people who had touched a heating pad would have greater trust than those who touched an ice pack when playing an economic trust game.

What gives?

It seems the part of the brain that deals with warmth, the insula, fires neurons associated with psychological warmth when detecting physical warmth. That, the article goes on to say, explains why people who feel rejected might console themselves with some hot soup. Emotional coldness, therefore, would trigger feeling cold; hence, the interest in the hot soup.

Here’s another thought-provoking finding.

719 people with colds were divided into four study groups, three of which received pills and one which didn’t. Two groups received echinacea but one was told it was echinacea and the other wasn’t. The third group received a placebo. Virus samples were taken daily and the participants had to fill out surveys and forms. Here’s what they found: “There was little difference between those who didn’t know they were receiving echinacea and those who knew they were taking echinacea, which suggests the herb didn’t have a major impact. However, a subgroup who rated echinacea’s effectiveness highly on a form at the start of the study—and were given a placebo during the study—had the shortest duration colds. Their illnesses were 2 ½ days shorter than those who weren’t taking the pills.”

In other words, the people who did not know what the pill they were taking was thought it was echinacea because of the questions they were asked about it prior to starting the experiment. And just that thought alone created a placebo effect which shortened the cold!

How can we explain this?

A 2002 study, published online1 used Positron Emission Tomography to show that some of the same parts of the cortical and paralimbic regions of the brain (for instance, dorsal anterior cingulate, inferior parietal posterior insula, and thalamus) are affected by placebos given for depression as are affected by floxetine (Prozac).

What are the implications of all this?

Apparently, thoughts are powerful. Thoughts alone can change brain function.

1 Helen S. Mayberg, J. Arturo Silva, Steven K. Brannan, Janet L. Tekell, Roderick K. Mahurin, Scott McGinnis, Paul A. Jerabek, “The Functional Neuroanatomy of the Placebo Effect,” American Journal of Psychiatry, 2002, 159:728-737. https://www.ptsdforum.org/c/gallery/-pdf/1-45.pdf

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