20 July 2012

What we 'know' and how it changes us

I noticed a couple stories recently that indicate some interesting relationships between what we think we know, and how that impacts our subsequent reaction to things.  The first involves attitudes about climate change, in the story 'Ideology clouds how we perceive the temperatures' by John Timmer at ArsTechnica:
When it comes to things like flood and droughts, most people seem to have accurately registered the recent trends in their area. But when the subject shifts to temperatures, the actual trends become irrelevant, and ideology and political beliefs shape how people perceive things. As the authors put it, "the contentious nature of the climate change debate has influenced the way in which Americans perceive their local weather."
The second story is about so-called 'nocebos' - 'Are Warnings About the Side Effects of Drugs Making Us Sick?' by Steve Silberman. The idea here is that when people are told of the potential harmful side effects of various drugs, some people experience those side effects even when they are given sugar pills!
A placebo, you might say, is an ersatz drug that makes you feel better, while a nocebo is a fake drug that makes you feel worse. Of course, in both cases, it’s not the pill that’s doing the work; it’s your own body, responding to the social context in which you take the pill. If a skilled doctor with kindly bedside manner tells you that drug X will reduce the inflammation of a minor injury, it often will — even if the drug itself is nothing but a capsule full of lactose, milk sugar. One of the astonishing things we’ve discovered about the placebo effect in recent years is how wide a range of ailments can be ameliorated by it, at least temporarily — from chronic pain, to high blood pressure, to inflammation, to depression and anxiety, to sexual dysfunction, to the nausea and vomiting caused by chemotherapy. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it turns out that the nocebo effect is equally capable of making you feel more miserable, in a similarly broad range of ways.
To my thinking at least, these stories both indicate that belief and suggestion can have powerful effects both on thinking and on the physical body.  You may want to keep an eye on Steve's blog NeuroTribes.