Faith healing is a form of alternate medicine that attempts to cure a range of ailments primarily through personal and intercessory prayer, sometimes augmented by faith-based rituals and gestures. It’s believed that through such divine intervention God is capable of curing all diseases and injuries that could ever affect anybody. Interestingly, a lot of people do actually get cured. The town of Lourdes in France, for instance, is one of the most famous healing shrines in the world and one of the most visited of all pilgrimage sites because of the so-called healing powers of its waters. In fact, the place is littered with discarded crutches (though no discarded prosthetics mind you) and one can argue whether it’s a result of psychosomatic healing or divine help.However, a significant number of healings have been independently verified by doctors with no church connections.
Rationalists, along with most physicians and scientists, who don’t subscribe to supernatural intervention in human affairs, including those dealing with bodily health, think the whole thing is a hoax. So what about independently attested cases? Well, they say that’s where the placebo effect comes into play. A placebo (Latin:’I shall please’) is an inert substance like a sugar pill given to someone who is told that it is a particular medicine to make that person feel as if they are getting better. It usually works 25-30 per cent of the time. The placebo effect, on the other hand, is a beneficial effect produced by a placebo drug or procedure which cannot be attributed to the properties of the placebo itself, and must therefore be due to the patient’s belief in that treatment. That’s the reason for the absence of discarded artificial limbs at Lourdes.
A psychophysiological response can’t regrow a missing leg. There’s also faith killing. In rural West Bengal, for example, a kind of voodoo death used to be practised called nishir daak (‘call of the night’). A person takes a green coconut in his left hand with the top chopped off in the right to the intended victim’s house at midnight. He calls out his name three times. If there’s no answer, the victim is safe; but if he answers after the first or second call then the person quickly caps the coconut with the top and leaves. He has captured the victim’s soul and he will soon die. And as with faith healing, a lot of times this indeed came to pass. Cultural anthropologists believe that the victim usually realised what had happened when there was no one outside and got so terrified that after that the brain literally worked overtime on an autosuggestion mode and raised the individual’s stress levels and blood pressure so high that the heart ultimately gave in. But scientists who had earlier worked in Placebo research, soon discovered that the effect also had an ‘evil twin’ which they called the ‘Nocebo’ effect (Latin:’I shall harm’).
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