Harmful suggestions: a health care dilemma

A Christian Science perspective.

Suggestions change people. They really do. Whether they are mental or audible suggestions, they cause behavioral and physical modifications to take place.

Take, for example, a friend who loosens up immediately and becomes the life of the party when wine is set in front of him. The transformation takes place before the alcohol is ever tasted. The expectation or suggestion of relaxation that the alcohol offers causes the change.

Then there’s pain. It can disappear when sugar pills are ingested by someone who has been told they are genuine medicine. Health can even be restored after someone undergoes a simulated treatment or surgery. This phenomenon is called the placebo effect.

When a good suggestion comes to thought, we begin to anticipate the positive outcome. Our anticipation and expectation of good things actually aid in bringing the helpful outcome to fruition. However, the opposite is also true. The effects of negative suggestions can be harmful.

Most likely, whether we know it or not, we’ve all been affected in some way by the power of a suggestion. And it is this power to cause harm that is stirring up questions about honesty and ethics in health care.

Winfried Häuser and his colleagues at the Technical University of Munich in Germany, during a study of the nocebo effect – a type of negative placebo effect in which harmful side effects are anticipated by a patient and come to pass because of that expectation – observed that a “negative suggestion can induce symptoms of illness.”

They found that “nocebo responses can, for instance, be brought about by unintended negative suggestions on the part of doctors or nurses, e.g., when informing the patient about the possible complications of a proposed treatment.... Patients may develop symptoms and side effects purely because they’ve been told about them.”

In a National Institutes of Health article, Ted Kaptchuk, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, is reported to have praised Dr. Häuser’s findings but wondered if giving less information to patients raised ethical questions. “If we don’t tell patients about adverse effects, we are unethical and not transparent and not [providing an opportunity for] full informed consent,” he said. “But if we tell people, it actually may produce harm.”

What a quandary.

Yet an early researcher who studied the influences that suggestion had on behavior and health believed she’d found a possible answer to this very dilemma.

In the late 1800s, after experimenting with different modalities, Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of the Monitor, discovered a spiritual method of health care based on the teachings and healings of Christ Jesus. Eventually, she surmised that any system that focused intensely on the body and physical causes would be reinforcing disease by its unavoidable suggestions and advertisements of symptoms and suffering.

Mrs. Eddy felt it was more ethical and honest to share spiritual facts with her patients rather than to talk to them about their ailments. This was important because she also felt that spirituality, particularly their identity as God’s son or daughter, was the key ingredient to their health and the actual foundation of their existence.

Interestingly enough, she found that her spiritual care didn’t ignore health conditions but changed them, not through suggestion, which was liable to be altered by another suggestion, but by understanding what is true about God and about themselves as being created by God.

Through having a greater awareness of God’s goodness and the spiritual nature of health, an individual would be less likely to be influenced by the suggestion of disease and suffering.

Today, studies are showing that spirituality heals and contributes years to life expectancies. This verse from the Bible hints at the possibilities: “He sent his word, and healed them, and delivered them from their destructions” (Psalms 107:20). The Word of God can have a great impact on health.

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Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.