Most (all?) cultures combine medication with ritual – something simple like ginger or pepto for your stomach combined with a prayer of some kind, for instance, or something less familiar, like this Paraguayan man who chants and sings before searching for the healing plant. After growing up with chronic pain in a church that believed strongly in faith healing, I have conflicted feelings about ritual. On the one hand, it really didn’t help me and made me feel quite guilty. On the other hand, many people seemed to gain real comfort from it.
I’ve been thinking about why rituals are associated with medicine in so many cultures, and I think it has something to do with the placebo effect. This fantastic article summarizes how the placebo effect could be used to help with symptoms of some illnesses, how to get benefits of placebos ethically, and how the placebo effect may work. I was especially intrigued by the idea that the medical care (the “ritual” of medicine) may help medication work better :
Some researchers argue that the real source of a placebo’s effect is the medical care that goes along with it–that the practice of medicine exerts tangible healing influences. This notion has received support from experiments known as “open-hidden” studies. Fabrizio Benedetti, a professor at the University of Turin Medical School, has conducted a number of these, in which patients receive painkiller either unknowingly (they are connected to a machine that delivers it covertly) or in an open fashion (the doctor is present, and announces that relief is imminent). Patients in the “open” group need significantly less of the drug to attain the same outcome. In other words, a big part of the effect comes from the interactions and expectation surrounding the drug.
I don’t think naturopathic medicine or homeopathy are going to cure my migraines, but I also think that there’s more to feeling better than taking a pill. When I was a child with a bad chest cold, for instance, my mother would rub Vicks into my chest and back, wrap me up in blankets, and sing to me. It made me feel much better, and I’m sure that the care my mother gave me was just as important as the Vicks and Robitussin.