Religion’s Placebo Effect(s)


If you have Irritable Bowel Syndrome—and reading blogposts can give it to you if you don’t—you’re in luck.  The best treatment might be provided in little packets manufactured by C&H.

A few years ago, a team of real-life scientists produced an important study that showed that placebos work.  This was not, itself, news.  We came to understand long ago that a sugar pill, when pretending to be medication, can have positive material consequences on individuals’ health.

We even understand, now, some of the chemistry that placebos initiate.  Placebos can motivate the brain to release endorphins.  Placebos can motivate the brain to release dopamine.  You tell folks that you’re giving them medication, and their own bodies go to work for their benefit.

Only, in the case of this study, the sugar pills were not pretending to be medication.  The scientists, here, did not tell their research subjects that they were getting medication, nor even that they might get a placebo, but maybe not.  On the contrary, this team of scientists told their research subjects they were taking sugar pills.  Up front.  From the beginning.

“We’re giving you sugar pills for your Irritable Bowel Syndrome,” the scientists said to half of their research subjects.  Then they handed them a bottle of pills labeled: Placebo.

Apparently, the folks who took the Placebo-labeled placebos showed significant improvement over their counterparts, who weren’t treated at all.

Before I fall prey to the inclination to draw any medical conclusions, let me say that I don’t know froo-frah from medical bio-chemistry.

But the real-life scientists who do speak placebo-ese consistently reiterate that there is not a single “placebo effect”, but many such effects, in the plural, wrapped up together in these various placebo-laden phenomena.  There’s a lot going on, apparently, when a person takes a sugar pill.

I’d like to recommend that play is one crucial element wrapped up in all of the chemistry.  I don’t think I’m recommending any metaphysical interpretation of the circumstances.  I don’t think a metaphysical or supernatural reading of placebo effects is warranted or necessary.  I think playing, in perfectly natural ways, contributes to our physical health, as well as to our psychological and emotional well-being.

In short: we have to be able to do things that are ridiculous and that don’t make sense.  We die if we don’t.

D. W. Winnicott argued decades ago that genuine living arises from experiencing the freedom that is the characteristic of play, and that that experience can only be had from doing.*  That’s the employment of one’s body in action, people.  One can think all day long about one’s health, but the taking of the placebo constitutes a creative force that does not come into being, otherwise, and that contributes substantively to an individual’s sense of himself or herself as a self.  Until and unless one can play, reasoned Winnicott, one is not really living.

One plays by appropriating actual objects.  In play, one demonstrates the autonomy that’s inherent in being able to claim an actual object for oneself, and by investing that claimed object with imaginative significance—one’s own imaginative significance—one projects oneself into the world of actual objects.  The consequence is the experience of what would be a wholly impersonal universe as a place of personality.  One creates, in play, a cosmic home.

It is creative apperception more than anything else that makes the individual feel that life is worth living. (87)

This is why so many people will slap down a couple hundred bucks for ForceFX lightsabers.

So, you take a placebo, knowing it’s a placebo, and affirm to yourself that you exist and that your life has value in a cosmos that doesn’t give a —t.  It would be strange, I think, if placebos didn’t do something good.

Religion can be seen as a placebo, of course.  But this correlation has much more to it than the suggestion that religion is just a bunch of namby-pamby pretending with nothing magical or supernatural or transcendent in it.  Placebos aren’t, necessarily, about pretending.  Religion, when it’s really working, is the freedom to play oneself into existence.  This essential placebo quality of religion provides for seeing Christianity, Buddhism, Paganism, Pastafarianism, etc., as religions, together.

And religion doesn’t work when it denies play.  It certainly happens that communities that call themselves religion operate to limit or to eliminate an individual’s capacity to play, demanding compliance, instead of the creative freedom by which true selves form.  Where particular communities demand obedience—or, as Winnicott puts it, “when an adult puts too powerful a claim on the credulity of others, forcing them to acknowledge a sharing of illusion that is not their own” (4)—religion disappears, and genuine living with it.**

Compliance carries with it a sense of futility for the individual and is associated with the idea that nothing matters and that life is not worth living. (87)

So, no, there’s nothing magical about a doll, or a frisbee, or a Ford Mustang, or this AC/DC t-shirt I’m wearing, or a sugar pill.  There’s nothing transcendent about the eucharist, or a temple, or a wedding ring (gay or straight), or a tree.

But the whole mundane nature of all this stuff is beside the point.  We can play things—all sorts of sugar-pill things—into significance because we are imaginative, creative creatures, and that imagination and creativity must find an outlet.  We don’t live unless it does.  Religion can be an arena of play, and playing, when we can do it, makes us healthier humans.


*D. W. Winnicott. Playing and Reality. NY: Routledge, 2005.

**Winnicott himself calls this demand for compliance “a hallmark of madness” (4).

***Image adapted from

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