Saturday, May 16, 2009


Does it matter whether it is physical pain or psychological sorrow? It is a pain, a suffering. Advaita does not end "suffering." Advaita ends the "sufferer" in you (i.e. a distinct 'entity' and the sense of 'embodiment' engendered by coalescing perceptions).

What is the probability of success of ending the 'sufferer' in you by Advaita? Based on Bhagavad-Gita Sloka 3, Chapter VII, Prof. Sobottka estimates it to be <1 in a billion! JK expresses in his dialogs with a few Buddhists that there is nothing like 'my suffering' or 'her suffering'. What there is, is just 'suffering', 'anger' etc. Suffering becomes mine only when my thoughts start reacting to it and claim ownership to it. He does not say why suffering should exist at all. Sanatana Dharma too does not explain the fundamental questions of "Why?". The simple answer provided is that suffering is timeless and it works as per the 'Law of Nature' (Niyati in Sanskrit). "Faith" can, however, redeem suffering as Dr. Herb Benson established several decades ago and substantiated by a large amount of later research. Faith is the key factor in the working of placebos. Faith helps in the production of the necessary endorphins, opioids and canabonoids in the brain and they in turn help in alleviating the pain. This is the secret behind the healing by Swamis, Saints, monks and holy people. (See below for a one-page write up of mine on "Pain, Suffering and Placebo" originally published in Consecration, 2005, p: 19).

Negative beliefs, called nocebos, have been proved to act negatively with deleterious effects on the human body.

Neuroscientist Prof. C. deCharms of Omneuron says that "you can control your brain to control your pain." He designed a 'Real Time fMRI Machine' lying in which a patient with chronic pain can see the pathways of neuronal firing in his/her brain and modify the firing consciously (taking help of a few cues provided) so that he/she is relieved of the pain. Patients reported 44% - 64% reduction in their chronic pain in clinical trials by this method.

(See here a 3-min demo lecture of his.)


By Dr. Vemuri Ramesam

“It’s a miracle. The holy ash given by the Great Baba cured my unbearable pain!”
“An affectionate touch and a wave of hand by Mata Sri; that’s all; my asthma is gone!”
“The Swami sprinkled holy water and my colic cramps disappeared!”
“The intense gaze of my Guru rid me of my chronic depression!”

 Very often we come across people making such excited statements and strange claims. They make us wonder if they could be true. It was about a half a century ago that Dr. H.K. Beecher of USA reported the “Placebo effect”, by which a third of the patients got better from a mere illusion of the treatment. It has ever since intrigued scientists how a “placebo” – an inert pill not containing any medicine, but for the confidence and suggestion of the doctor – can cure patients. A study in 1993 concluded that sometimes the effects of a placebo may go up to 70 per cent. During 1994 in Houston, even faked surgeries on the knee for arthritis relieved the patients from pain. Patients suffering pain after wisdom-tooth extraction got just as much relief from a fake application of ultrasound. Fifty two percent of the colitis patients treated with placebo showed less inflammation in their intestines. There are a few controversies too regarding some of the placebo studies. Questions on the statistical rigor and possible biases because of the financial and other vested interests of drug firms and health administrators in some of those studies were also raised. However, placebos do seem to work. Drug companies now as a rule test the efficacy of a new drug against a placebo before marketing it.

It is not always known how the placebos work – whether it is the natural waxing and waning of the diseases or unknown remissions or because of the autosuggestion of the patient himself/herself. It also appears that the placebo effect does not interfere with the body’s ability to sense the pain but instead affects how the brain modulates its interpretation to the pain signals. Modern studies using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), PET scans of the brain’s activity and neurochemistry are throwing new light o the effect of the placebos.

Psychology has a major role in the feeling of pain. Unless the brain pays attention, pain is not felt. A mother so very often diverts her child’s attention with a toy or music when the child is crying with pain. There are some very painful procedures that have to be carried out on patients with severe burns. Such patients did not feel pain when their attention was diverted using virtual 3-D games, which the patients played while undergoing the procedures. Dr. H.G. Hoffman who recently carried out the work says, “Human attention is like a spotlight, allowing us to select some information to process and to ignore everything else.”

At the University of Michigan an fMRI study was done on the brains of volunteers exposed to painful electric shocks. In some cases the teachers told the participants (falsely) that a pain-relieving cream had been applied to their skin. When these subjects were given electric shocks, they reported less pain. Their fMRI pictures exhibited increased brain activity in the prefrontal cortex and decreased activity in pain-sensing regions like the thalamus. Dr. V.S. Ramachandran, Neurologist of California, describes the interesting case of a patient who laughs when pricked with a sharp needle. The patients feels the prick. Yet it tickles him rather than hurt. Dr. Ramachandran also describes the pain experienced by patients in a phantom limb that’s not really there (removed surgically). He could study from such cases the information pathways of nerves that convey the sense of pain from the organ to the brain.

Recent advances in Neurochemistry are offering further understanding about pain and pleasure circuits in the brain. Our ancients knew the pleasure inducing chemicals like marijuana, bhang and others. It is known that our brain produces similar compounds to mitigate pain.

Dr. Mechoulam discovered in 1992 a fatty acid produced in the brain that mimics marijuana. He named it “anandamide” after the Sanskrit word ananda meaning “bliss.” Later more chemicals were identified. Work with mice in Germany indicates that such chemicals help in ending bad feelings and pain triggered by memories. There is mounting evidence now that people suffering from depression respond well to a placebo.

Endorphins are chemicals that reduce pain and give us a sense of pleasure. Exercise or some of the foods we eat can produce endorphins in our brain. Scientists from Germany demonstrated in 2008 for the first time that “increased release of endorphins in certain areas of the athletes’ brains during a two-hour jogging session. Body’s own opiates are produced in the same areas of the brain which are involved in the expression of pain.”  Feel-good hormones are released during exercise, a good conversation, and many other aspects of life that give humans pleasure. Researchers at the Rutgers University reported in June 2008 that the feel-good hormones in our brain do not just make us feel good, but also play roles in regulating the stress response and improving resistance to disease. A survey by Dr. Jon Tilburt in 2008 showed that most doctors in the USA prescribed medicines as placebos to their patients.

A recent study using brain scans showed that the prefrontal cortex could inhibit the passage of pain signals. Prefrontal cortex is the area of our higher brain functions. Meditation/relaxation influences its activity. From all these studies we can conclude that we definitely have in us some keys to control our pain and suffering.

Now we can see some convincing linkages between the above findings and the statements and claims of people mentioned at the beginning of this article. Sure enough, the holy water, the ash, the touch and an assuring word all work for in the amelioration of our vexing chronic pains and problems of suffering possibly as placebos. The word placebo means: “I shall please.” These holy men are able to please and inspire us to help ourselves. As long as they can maintain their humility and not exploit the gullible, the holy men have a social value to that extent. That is ingrained in our Eastern tradition, a part of our rubric. We should remember, however, that the placebos work in general in 30 to 40 per cent of the cases. Serious cases of illness do always require medical care.

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