John of God and the Placebo Effect

Over the Thanksgiving holiday, I picked up a copy of O, The Oprah Magazine, and read an article about John of God, a South American faith healer. Journalist Susan Casey traveled down to central Brazil to investigate and meet the man who has been performing miracles for 52 years, since he was just 16. She also went to get healed herself from the heavy grief she’d been carrying since her father’s death. In her article, Casey describes how people come from all over the world to attend crowded presentations where John of God performs “invisible surgeries” and more hands-on procedures such as eye scraping and nostril purging. Casey witnessed a fully conscious woman stand motionless while John of God, who is not a medical doctor, cut open her chest. According to Casey, the patient, who had breast cancer, appeared pain free during the 15 minute procedure. Besides the presentations, there are meditation circles where visitors sit in “the current” of healing energy, and one-on-one meetings with John of God that can last for less than a minute. Some people are healed immediately, some have to return repeatedly before they are completely healed, and a few never heal. I tore the article from the magazine and taped it into my notebook.

Over Christmas break I flipped on the television for the first time in months. There, being interviewed about John of God, was Susan Casey.  The CNN commentator, along with a Harvard-trained medical doctor, were asking her questions about her experience in Brazil. It was obvious that both men were skeptical, but neither of them mocked her in the current fashion of television journalism. Instead, they reflected what I had been feeling since I first read Casey’s article: a flicker of hope that John of God was the real thing.  Because the reality is this, someday will be our turn, or the turn of someone we love, to hear the doctor say, “There is nothing more we can do.”  Who doesn’t want to cheat death and buy a little more time?  If all it took was a plane ticket to Brazil, I want to save my place in line.

My research showed that this was not the first time John of God has been thrust into the limelight. In 1996, he was featured in an hour-long ABC News Primetime Special, and more recently was the subject of a 60 Minutes segment.  An online search revealed that for every story of John of God’s miracle cures, there are just as many skeptics screaming foul. Most say that his eye scraping and nostril purging procedures are nothing more than a parlor trick, and that if he does invoke any kind of healing reaction, it is simply the result of a placebo effect.

In 1920, physician T.C. Graves first named the placebo effect or placebo response as a fake treatment or inactive substance such as a sugar pill that improves a patient’s condition based simply on the power of expectation. (A negative placebo effect is called the nocebo effect. Nocebo is Latin for “I shall harm.” Placebo means “I shall please.”)  According to a February 2009 online article published by Scientific American, “In recent decades, reports have confirmed the efficacy of various sham treatments in nearly all areas of medicine. Placebos have helped alleviate pain, depression, anxiety, Parkinson’s disease, inflammatory disorders, and even cancer.”  A placebo response can be as simple as a bandaid applied to a child’s knee that helps lessen the pain.  When our children were young, my friend Barbara and I often used homeopathic medicine to treat the never ending cycles of sniffles, fevers, and tummy aches.  Homeopathic medicine is based on the idea of “like cures like.”  Tiny powdery sugar pills contain minuscule amounts of a substance that would cause a similar illness as a means of provoking a healing response. Eventually, neither of us were convinced it worked, and we took to calling it “the pretend medicine,” but our children asked for it and seemed somewhat comforted after a dosage was given.

Deepak Chopra, medical doctor turned prolific author, has been writing for years about the mind, body, and spirit connection.  In one of his earliest and most well know works, Ageless Body, Timeless Mind: The Quantum Alternative to Growing Old, Chopra explains that aging and disease are largely preventable and dependent on the experience and belief system we create for ourselves.  His subsequent bestsellers give advice on how to reach “a land where no one is old” through meditation, healthy diet, exercise, vitamins and herbs, and a positive attitude.

I know all about Chopra’s theories because many of his books are on my shelves, dog-eared and highlighted. I have always been drawn to the mystery of how we heal, so much so that despite a large personal space bubble and a strong midwestern pragmatism, fifteen years ago I let the Taxi of Life drive me right to the door of a year-long massage therapy degree program in Boulder, Colorado, none-the-less, mecca for all New Age, healthy, and alternative. I focused on the practical mechanics of massage therapy, skirting the alternative methods such as aura reading, crystal healing, and angel guide channeling. I’m not saying these modalities aren’t effective or valid in their own right, I’m just saying they spooked me a bit. I did sign up and complete two Reiki training courses. Reiki is a Japanese healing method that improves the flow of life energy through the use of very light touch. The bonus was that Reiki could be performed while the client was fully clothed. I’d discovered pretty early in the year that I did not like touching naked people I hardly knew. Reiki seemed like a possible route to salvaging the substantial amount of cash I was sinking into getting my massage therapy degree. But despite my best efforts, and more cash output, I felt nothing during or after my Reiki training: no heat, no tingling, no life force exchange whatsoever.

Regardless, I completed the year of training and briefly opened a massage therapy practice, my own cobbled together method that did not involve any clothes being removed with the exception of socks. The final death nail that made me stop practicing altogether was the reaction of several clients who after their session sat up and looked at me as if I’d just parted the Red Sea. With tears in their eyes, they said that they’d just had the most powerful experience of their lives and were flooded with an immense amount of joy.  My massage school classmates would have been ecstatic by such feedback, and would have immediately requested a written and signed testimonial so they could set up a website with a fully stocked store, but I was less than excited.  As a matter of fact, these experiences scared the bejesus out of me because I had no idea what I had done to provoke them.  Nor how to reproduce them, much to my clients disappointment who after several return visits that proved to be less than ordinary, looked at me as if I had played a trick on them.

I am under no illusion that these experiences prove I possess some kind of undeveloped healing power and could become the California version of John of God, Melissa of the Messiah.  I do believe that sometimes hands-on-healing is powerful because it is another way, besides verbal communication, that someone can be heard.  You lay hands on someone and their body response, which is connected to their mind and soul, says, “Ah, yes. Thank you for paying attention to me.”  My hands were paying attention to something in those clients that I wasn’t even aware of, because truth be told, my mind tended to wander during those long 60 minute sessions.

In other words, there’s a lot we don’t know about how healing works.

During my latest acupuncture session, I asked Howard what he thought of the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), a popular healing method that involves a routine of tapping various points on the body with your fingertips.  EFT founder, Gary Craig and the website offer a free download of a 79 page beginning EFT manual. Last year I read the manual and then practiced the EFT technique so much that I tapped my face into a raging sinus infection. EFT didn’t work out so well for me, but others swear by it.

My acupuncturist’s response was interesting.  He said that he believes some people do possess a powerful healing ability, but when they try to teach that healing method to others, marketing it and selling it to the general public, it become watered down and basically ineffective. Ironically, we had this discussion as he placed small sharp needles in my meridians to unblock my flow of energy, a Chinese healing practice that has been passed down for 2500 years.  Apparently, this is a healing method that hasn’t gotten watered down because my sessions with Howard have healed me of all sorts of ailments: persistent eczema, mild depression, infertility problems, and lingering pelvic pain from an injury.  Or at least I think they have.

Simply a placebo effect? For years, acupuncture was maligned in this country as a quack cure despite a long successful history of healing throughout Asia.  But recently, new technology has allowed Western scientists to be able to identify energy fields. They are now able to determine that when a point is stimulated along a meridian, a corresponding change occurs in the brain. Currently, acupuncture has become a more acceptable healing option. My insurance, who won’t pay for my yearly wellness checks, pays for half the cost of my acupuncture visits.

Did acupuncture work any less effectively before science proved that it worked?

The online article from Scientific American goes on to say, “Researchers have decoded some of the biology of placebo responses, demonstrating that they stem from active processes in the brain.”  What if the placebo effect is just a healing switch in our brain or body that we haven’t yet identified?  What if John of God, Reiki, and EFT somehow, when performed by some people, flip that switch and start a healing process?

The anger is palpable within the articles discounting John of God as nothing more than a charlatan trying to steal from the sick. (Sessions with John of God are free and he sees all who request healing, but the recommended “tour” packages “endorsed” by John of God cost around $1600 not including airfare.)  According to Henry K. Beecher, a doctor who published the research study entitled “The Powerful Placebo,” 32 percent of patients respond to a placebo. With those kinds of odds, of course John of God is going to have some success, but what if his results are better than the simple placebo odds?  What if he can flip the healing switch?  When interviewed by Primetime about John of God, Dr. Mehmet Oz said that even if John of God is a charlatan, it is apparent that some of his patients have healed or believe they have been healed, and that “it might be worthwhile to study those people to see if their faith or drive to be healed has any kind of scientific importance or grounding.”

After all my research and probing, I still can’t say whether or not John of God is an amazing faith healer or just a well-played hoax.  Are his procedures simply a slight of hand, a placebo trick that triggers a healing response in some people?  I’m not sure.  But the reality is, some people do heal after visiting John of God and isn’t healing the point?  Does it matter how we heal?  For some people, apparently, yes, because they don’t like to feel tricked. Others, obviously, when desperate enough, will take any healing and not ask too many questions.  Perhaps someday, we will better understand the science behind healing so to explain why a trip to Brazil can cure cancer or a new massage student with limited ability can infuse her clients with joy. Until then, it is either a leap of faith or a doubter’s placebo effect.

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About flyingnotscreaming

My weekly quotes and "Notes from Flights" are my attempt to learn how to soar through life's unknowns with grace and gratitude. Thank you for flying with me. --Melissa Myers Place, writer, reader, massage therapist, mother, wife, and daughter
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1 Response to John of God and the Placebo Effect

  1. Emma Bellamy says:

    I just got back from Abadiania. I can say that without doubt John of God is the most gifted healer this world has seen in 2000 years. Joao is a very kind man who has dedicated his life to serving others. The entities who work with him use his body to prove to us many things that we are only just getting our heads around again. I say again because the scientific-medical establishment, [which is really only 200 years old] seems to have forgotten that even Hippocrates of their Hippocratic Oath used the Laying on of Hands. Concurrent to that, every indigenous culture and every major religion has been saying it for centuries- we are all connected to the Divine Source, which guides and heals, and we can all access this connection with the proper reverence and respect. Scientifically we now have a lot more understanding of the effects seen at The Casa de Dom Ignacio. You mentioned the placebo effect, Also:
    – In 1935 Shrodinger posited the Schodingers Cat experiment
    – Quantum non-locality is something we now definitely know exists
    – The Observer Effect expalins how consciousness directed changes outcomes… consciousness directed… sounds a lot like prayer to me!

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