The Placebo of Ernest the Life Coach

Sitting beside my friend Ernest we chatted the lazy morning away. We were in old town Saint Charles enjoying delicious coffee. Little birds scurried along begging for bread crumbs. Golden rays slipped through the fluffy cloud blankets creating kaleidoscope lightshows in the street.

Beside me was Ernest, he had a lean build halfway between a runner and a weekend warrior. His intensely bored eyes stared into the distance. He was tense and taut as a bow. “What did you think about the book I suggested?”

Watching the steam rise from my cup of coffee I placed my hand over the delightful heat of the freshly brewed deliciousness. Raising my eyes to his. “Oh yeah, the Mind Matter, You Are the Placebo book? It was boring with very little substance.”

Crossing his arms, Ernest’s face reddened as his brow furrowed.

I took a deep breath and continued speaking. “It was like four-hundred pages of pseudoscience garbage.  I get what the intent of the book is, but it’s the kind of message that can lead seriously ill people astray.”

Ernest shifted in his seat, his body movements sharpened, and began speaking faster. “I can’t fucking stand people like you. How can you just discount and dismiss what you read?” His words boiled with anger.

My eyebrow raised, I assumed he took my review as a criticism of him. I was kind of weirded out by his reaction. To ease the discomfort of the scene I raised the mug to my lips and took a sip; it was my favorite, highlander grog. Thankfully it had cooled enough for me to enjoy its exquisite flavor.

I looked at him, then back at the birds and the dark river in the distance. It took a few minutes of silence for his agitation to subside. As the air cleared his grimace lowered and his arms uncrossed.

You know I could’ve charged you when we first met?” He said with a stern face. “But, I value our time too much, so I didn’t…” Slowly he twisted his face into a half smile.  “…and I know you need our meetings.”

I shrugged and took a sip of my coffee. “I wouldn’t have hired you, so it wouldn’t have mattered.”

His half smile curled into a full fake smile.

Watching his reaction, I continued. “I’m sorry… I don’t pay for advice or for people to be my friend.” I said holding my hands on the sides of my warm mug.

A few moments passed. Ernest stretched his leg out, then sat back in his chair. The pallor of his face started to redden again as he pressed his lips together and narrowed his eyes. “So, what’s up, how are things?”

Eh, pretty rough, recovering from chemotherapy has been slow and hard.”

He stared off into space then back at me. “You know, the only reason you haven’t recovered is because you choose to stay sick. Right?”

Excuse me?” I could feel a warm anger in my stomach.

You’re choosing to be sick. As soon as you want to get better you will.” He paused for a moment. “That’s what Joe Dispenza is talking about right? This is all mind over matter.”

That’s not how it works, that’s not how chemotherapy or cancer works.” I was getting angry, but I was doing my best to remain calm.

That is how it works; if you tell your cells what to do they heal. If you chose to be sick, you stay sick. You have chosen to stay sick. Right? It is your decision; all of this is your decision. You’ve chosen to stay sick, just like you chose to get cancer.” His tone grated on my soul, like being stabbed by the splintered uneven edge of a broken spear.

My blood began to boil. How could this mother fucker actually believe this garbage? No one chooses to get cancer; no one wants to be sick.

He continued to explain. “I only get sick when I want to. I’ve been telling my wife and daughter this a long time. To prove it I told my wife I was choosing to get sick and I got sick. She used to have headaches all the time, now I’ve taught her how to choose not to have them, she doesn’t get them anymore. My daughter doesn’t listen though; she’s stuck like you and won’t accept she is in control of her health.”  Ernest’s smile and eyes became wide for a moment before continuing. “You are the placebo, if you want it hard enough, you can have anything you want.” He paused for a moment and looked at his phone. “I have an appointment, give me a hug brother, I’ll see you next week.”

I don’t like to see bridges burned, but I do like see boundaries enforced. To have a relationship with someone we must build a bridge from our island to theirs. It requires upkeep and understanding built from a foundation of empathy and respect. That day he was in the business of setting fires. There are certain things we don’t burn, just like there are certain things we don’t say. It felt like he was in the mood to set my island on fire, so I turned him toward the bridge. He first started by melting and discarding all his understanding, then set flame to empathy, and at the very end, once the bridge began to crumble and fall all my respect for him was gone. I could have stopped the conversation, told him how offensive his statements were, but why put out a flame when the arsonist is just going to set it ablaze again anyways?

Tell me about this book.

In the book: You are the Placebo, by Joe Dispenza he shared how he willed his vertebrae to regenerate after being crushed[1]. Where is the evidence? His followers claim things like x-rays and documentation aren’t needed to prove their prophet’s powers.

How did he heal his bones? Dispenza claims it was by becoming the placebo. In his words “The key is making your inner thoughts more real than the outer environment, because then the brain won’t know the difference between the two and will change to look as if the event has taken place. If you’re able to do this successfully enough times, you’ll transform your body and begin to signal new genes in new ways, producing epigenetic changes—just as though the imagined future event were real. And then you can walk right into that new reality and become the placebo.”[2

I have no clue what that meant, and I am sure he didn’t either. This is a common trait of followers and practitioners of pseudo-medicine, they love stringing together long unintelligible sentences.

Can we use the placebo effect to heal our body?

Harriet Hall, MD wrote: “Placebos are widely misunderstood. They don’t have any objective healing powers. Placebos have never been shown to change the course of any kind of illness; they have only been shown to temporarily improve subjective complaints like pain and nausea. You have a misconception about placebo surgery; no, it does nothing to activate the self-healing powers of the body. Placebo surgery is never used clinically for treatment. It has only been used as a placebo control in scientific studies, where it has been useful in demonstrating that a particular surgical procedure was ineffective and should be abandoned.”[3]

Harriet A. Hall is a retired family physician, former U.S. Air Force flight surgeon, and health advocate who writes about alternative medicine and quackery for Skeptic magazine, Skeptical Inquirer and Science-based Medicine.

 

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