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3rd Unit : 5th Study Group Session

"Does the Placebo Effect Change Our Understanding of the Causal Relationship between Mind and Body?"

The 5th Study Group Session, the 3rd UnitThe 5th study group session hosted by the 3rd Unit of the IRCP took place on Wednesday, October 31, 2012, at Hakusan Campus, Toyo University. The presenter was Mr. Ishida Yasushi, a lecturer at Yokohama City University whose paper was entitled "Does the Placebo Effect Change Our Understanding of the Causal Relationship between Mind and Body?" A summary follows.

A "placebo effect" is observed when medical patients or experimental subjects report healing even when inauthentic medical treatments such as sugar pills, from which no pharmacological effects or genuine medical or physiological effects can be expected, are given to them. Thus, the placebo effect appears to suggest that the mind is working on the body. Modern physics, medicine, and physiology are based on a form of monism called "physicalism" which holds that the "cause" of a physical happening or event or any effect can only be physical. The placebo effect, however, appears to contradict this understanding. As a consequence, the placebo effect has often been regarded as empirical evidence for mind-body dualism, a non-physicalist view.

The 5th Study Group Session, the 3rd Unit

In his book, The Placebo Response: How You Can Release the Body's Inner Pharmacy for Better Health, physician and ethicist Howard Brody argues that when a placebo is given to patients or experimental subjects, they ascribe certain meanings to it as a result of conditioning and expectations formed by past experience or through information already given, which in turn lead to physical changes in their body and thereby bring about healing effects. In other words, Brody interpreted the placebo effect as both a cognitive (epistemic) and a physical response made in the patients or subjects.

This interpretation makes it possible to understand the placebo effect within the framework of modern physicalism. This understanding suggests that the placebo effect first produces a biochemical (physical) mechanism in the body by way of consciousness and cognition; the mechanism in turn causes biochemical changes in the part of the body that serves as a physical basis for healing. This approach makes it possible to explain the placebo effect only in reference to relationships among physical events, constituting a fully coherent understanding within the framework of physicalism. It hence shows that the placebo effect, including one observed in alternative medicine, does not necessarily lead to mind-body dualism or the endorsement of the causal efficacy of the mind on the body.