Back when Steve Martin did stand up, he liked to talk about taking drugs—hey, it was the seventies, everything was cool, y’know?. “I took this amazing pill last night,” he would say. “It really bleeped me up—it’s called A PLACEBO!”
Fast forward about twenty-five years, to 2002, and Dr. Helen S. Mayberg starts doing research on “the placebo effect” at Emory University. Dr. Mayberg was twenty years old in 1976, and grew up in California. I suspect she dug Steve Martin back in the day.
What Dr. Mayberg found out was that taking placebos does, in fact, alter brain chemistry. Yes, that’s right—placebos can bleep you up! (Though I have to say, I’ve bought a few that didn’t!) But, I digress–if you take a sugar pill that you think is going to make you feel better, there’s a good chance that your brain chemistry will, obligingly, rearrange itself so that you feel better. This shook the foundation of modern neuropharmacology, which had assumed that the adult brain was a steady-state soup that could only be altered by pouring chemicals into it. Dr. Mayberg went on to do a study that showed that engaging depressed individuals in what is called “cognitive therapy,” in which they learn to think their way out of their depressions, is just as effective as medication for many people—and causes changes in brain chemistry that are, in fact, the opposite of the changes induced by medication. Her description of the difference is that medication changes the brain from the bottom up, while therapy changes the brain from the top down. As I understand it, this means that the changes induced by cognitive therapy are permanent, while the changes induced by drug therapy evaporate when an individual stops taking his or her, as they say, “meds.” Meanwhile….
His Holiness the Dalai Lama has long been eager to study Buddhist meditation practices with the tools of modern science, hoping to transform traditional religious practices into secular forms that will benefit people without obliging them to study Sanskrit. He has been fortunate to find many researchers eager to help him out. One center for this activity has been the Waisman Laboratory for Brain Imaging and Behavior, at the University of Wisconsin, where Dr. Richard Davidson has found powerful differences between the brains of long-term monks and novice meditators. But many of the differences are differences of degree—the meditators have discovered how to turn on their compassion and problem-solving centers to an unparalleled degree, while novices have just begun to stir these abilities. As with Dr. Mayberg’s work on cognitive therapy, this proves that the way we think does change our brains—positive thinking creates a positive feedback loop that improves functioning, while negative thinking creates negative feedback that…well, you get the picture.
This has enormous implications not just for the treatment of so-called “mental illness,” but for all of us. For the “mentally ill,” it shows that our current, “pill for every ill” way of thinking is just what many patients’ rights groups have claimed it is—a way for the drug companies to sell more pills, not a way that actually benefits those who are suffering. What it suggests to me is that, rather than creating a nation on prescription drugs, we could identify people who would make good cognitive therapy counselors and get them trained up and working with the so-called mentally ill (many of whom only see a “therapist” to get their prescriptions renewed). This would create a community network that in and of itself would be beneficial, not just for the human contacts it would create but because the counselors’ wages would circulate in the community, while drug money goes out to pharmaceutical companies and doesn’t come back.
I believe such community mental health networks would also benefit from the legalization of two classes of drugs now outlawed—marijuana and psychedelics. Marijuana has the effect of loosening habitual neural patterns in the brain (note to my serious readers: the link above does not reference this specific claim—my deadline got in the way of tracking it down, but I know it’s out there, and when I find it, I’ll link it in.) , and, with proper guidance, can be very helpful in changing self-defeating habit patterns. And psychedelic therapy, of course, had a very promising beginning before being shut down, in part by pharmaceutical companies who were averse to pills that they might only have to give a patient once. It’s the repeat business that makes stockholders happy, you know!
That’s the “mental illness” side of the benefits from this research. Now for the “mental wellness.” The meditation studies demonstrate that our brains will grow if we exercise them. There are exercise programs available that will increase our compassion, creativity, mental flexibility, and many other positive qualities, just as there are physical exercise programs—from yoga to aerobics to weight training—that will increase our physical flexibility, endurance, and strength. Members of the network of mental health counselors that I have proposed should be well grounded in these mental exercises, and should be available for wellness counseling as well as illness counseling. Healthy people take aerobics and yoga classes and work out in gyms—we should have the same emphasis on mental discipline, as well, and this broad foundation of mental and physical training should be at the heart of a national health system.
This is a very different emphasis from the proposals floated by most Democrats, let alone Republicans—their major concern seems to be making sure that the insurance and medical/pharmaceutical establishments stay healthy, not the public. That’s what’s politically possible for the two major parties, who are largely supported by these bloated business empires. Sooner or later, they will have to realize that the health and insurance establishment is to the body politic as cancer is to the human body, and that there is no way to make America healthy other than a little surgery. There is such a thing as beneficial corporate downsizing, y’know?
music: Taj Mahal—Giant Step