As my guest today, Dr Mitchell Smolkin says, “Placebo gets a bad rap”. Yes, that’s right, I interviewed Mitchell Smolkin, another Mitchell Smolkin, who has also had a lifelong interest in how human beings suffer and wrote a book about it over 30 years ago entitled “Understanding Pain: Interpretation and Philosophy”.


What was most striking in our interview for me was how about halfway through, in a matter of fact tone, Mitchell stated that patients benefit as much from a witch doctor as modern antidepressants. I had just finished a book over my vacation where yet another modern treatment in the field of psychology, neurofeedback, was facing questions about its placebo effect and the charismatic nature of some of the most successful practitioners. I shook my head, not at the fact that there was an element of success that couldn’t be described, but that the detractors would go so far as to question whether this placebo effect rendered the treatment null and void and therefore just another version of medical quackery.


The truth is, as Mitchell so eloquently describes in our interview, we need to use the relationship in healing, it is real and it is effective. Also, human beings have been studying the power of relationships for centuries. Placebo emerged out of a commission in France in the late 18th century that was evaluating the effectiveness of Dr Anton Mesmer’s treatments, and when they couldn’t successfully replicate his results, they determined that it was all a sham; he had to shut down and was discredited. 


But why would we disclude undefinable elements in the healing process that help people feel better? Would we rip the mother’s love away from the child because we cannot replicate it? Would we tell a sports coach to stop doing whatever she is doing because we don’t understand how they get such good results? In all of this, are we actually discovering that human relationship is so powerful if it is done effectively and with good intentions, the human being can heal? The late neuroscientist and psychobiologist Jaak Panksepp said as much when he proclaimed that he would never be able to create a drug that could replace human affection, and he was responsible for a number of pharmacological solutions to mental disease.


So it seems to me that we should get ourselves and embrace the fact that in the therapeutic process, the connection between clinician and patient is powerful and transcends theory and approach. Human beings need human beings to heal, and if we can foster that relationship, however it comes, we should promote and embrace it. To stand in the way and shake our fingers is tantamount to having our heads up our asses and probably has to do more with our own trauma than it does with any meaningful contribution that we are making. Let’s get out of our own way and make room for the other as best we can.

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