Placebo, nocebo, and Torah

The idea of choice, and most especially free will (not quite the same thing BTW) is something that interests me. No matter what I read or where I look it seems to me that I have a lot of choices (esp. leaving in the US) but remarkably little free will to do anything about these choices.

First there is the question of how exactly my brain is choosing stuff before I do: “But there is clear evidence in favour of the idea that decisions are not taken consciously but rather enter our awareness already taken. But this does not mean that we do not make decisions, we do, but just not make them consciously.”

This leads to a new set of questions: “If I say that I make decisions, how is this to be interpreted? Who is the ‘I’? It would be simpler if there was agreement on this. If ‘I’ is connected only to consciousness, then ‘I’ do not make decisions or much of anything for that matter. If ‘I’ is a whole unified brain then ‘I’ do make decisions.”

There are a lot of implications and sub-implications and much wrangling and debating over just what does the data show. But overall, the pattern it creates is that decisions are unconsciously made – hold that thought in your head for a while.

Now add this new tidbit: there is this whole area of study on placebos, their evil cousin nocebos. Basically what we are saying here is that we can be tricked into health or illness. To make it even worse there is now evidence of “subliminal placebos”…wait what? This is like a ninja placebo that sneaks in and cures you without you even know it was there. Traditional placebos were things like sugar pills which we were told had medicine which would cure you. And they did! Now we are talking about not even knowing you were taking a placebo and still getting cured?

At some point here we have crossed over dimensions and somehow have entered into a universe where sorcery and spells actually work! I am being jinxed by a subliminal nocebo! What?

Of interest to me, as I hold these ideas together, is how the blow up my mind. No conscious choice and subliminal placebos. How exactly am I going to choose the right thing?

So question for me at this stage are: if my brain is making decisions (and it is) then does it matter what I “feed” it? Does my mind-diet matter? If my brain is filled with positive images, with deep images, with sacred texts, will it make the correct choices (or better ones anyway?) If, alternatively I fill my brain with the opposite kind of food, with the most vitriolic hate-filled speech, with gruesome imagery, with filth and darkness, what will it do to my choices?

One more important thing: by “choices” I do not mean solely what cereal I buy, or whether I take the high road or the low road to get to Scotland. I mean the deepest impulse to love or not, to trust or not, to see abundance or scarcity, to see skin or to see heart. For me choice is a matter of seeing. And seeing is more than just looking.

Ok, now I am tying myself up in knots. But I am trying to point out that a choice is a quick thing, an impulse even. And I wonder if we can marinate our brains and souls with good stuff to strengthen the yetzer hatov and help prevent (reduce?!) yetzer hara, the “natural” evil impulses we all have.

What is the solution? I think this quote sums it up: “Torah, prayer and the contemplation of death will help you in your struggle against the evil inclination.” (Talmud: Berakot 5a) If you substitute “Torah” to mean sacred scriptures, then you will find this is universally applicable, and has been universally recommended as the strongest practice in all traditions. It is certainly the monastic way.


About spaceloom

An urban monk, and an experienced spiritual director with a Masters in Psychology. Married with two children. Want to know me better? Read my thoughts.
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