Placebo Effects and Shamanic Healing

There are some scholars — such as James McLenon and Stephen Sanderson, who contend that shamanic techniques of healing played in an important role in the evolution of religion.  I tend to agree and discussed the issue in “Judge Not and Be Persuaded (or Healed):

“Essential to McClenon’s argument is that the people being treated by shamans (a) must believe in the shaman’s power to heal, and (b) have better outcomes if they are prone to hypnotic or suggestible states.  What is being described here is the power of placebo, which is undeniable and empirically supported by medical studies.”

I did not know until today that a professor at my university (CU-Boulder) is researching placebo effects.  In an article titled “Seeking to Illuminate the Mysterious Placebo Effect,” Erik Vance of the New York Times reports on the work of Tor Wager:

The phrase “mind-body connection” has many connotations. For some, it’s shorthand for New Age quackery. For others, it’s a source of hope and a way to reconcile their spiritual life with modern science.

For Tor D. Wager, it’s just another day at the office.

Dr. Wager is a professor of psychology at the University of Colorado. His specialty is neuroscience and brain imaging, but his passion is the placebo effect — a phenomenon that has undergone a resurgence in recent years and is now being studied by researchers in many corners of science.

This is neither weird nor mystical science — it is research firmly rooted in neurobiology and has evolutionary implications:

But for [Professor Wager] it is a deeper question, tied to his childhood religion and the way he sees the world.

“What is the placebo effect?” he asked. “It’s not some weird magical thing that just kind of happened out of the blue.

“I think it’s connected to systems that generate emotional responses,” he continued. “It’s a window into ways in which psychological factors can affect brain and body factors that are related to health.”

If I am not mistaken, Wager’s research may bridge a gap between social/evolutionary theorists McLenon and Sanderson on the one hand, and emotion researchers Antonio Damasio and Jaak Panksepp on the other.  After I have had a chance to read Professor Wager’s publications, I will post on this possible bridge.

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