Monday, September 16, 2013

Thinking while sick

Back when I watched TV, which is many years ago, I would sometimes watch Star Trek. My least favorite character was Mr. Spock. My objection to Spock was that he was extremely foolish in a way that he should have been smart enough to recognize and correct. His foolishness was based in his refusal to admit the importance of understanding emotion and psychology. He would respond to any statement about feelings influencing actions with, "That's illogical," without considering the fact that these statements were also true. Feelings do influence behavior, and to deny that fact, or fail to act on it is illogical.

I was thinking about this last night in the context of the placebo effect. The placebo effect is surprisingly powerful, very easy to demonstrate convincingly, and I've never heard a plausible argument for how the physiology behind it works. There is also good evidence for a negative placebo effect, that believing something will harm you can make it somewhat harmful.

This was on my mind because I have been sick for the last two weeks, with a cold bad enough to keep me from getting much of anything done, and people have started to suggest various home remedies that I am sure don't work. However, because of the placebo effect, I wish I did believe they worked. My inherent skepticism keeps me from gaining the demonstrable benefits of almost any worthless snake-oil. On the other hand my previous experience of frequent and lengthy sickness convinces me that I am likely to stay sick, surely contributing to a negative placebo effect.

It was these thoughts, plus snippets of the Norse myths Iris has been reading to me before bed, that I went to sleep. And what a strange pair of dreams I. First, I dreamed I was in a bar or hall with long wooden tables. Some of my deceased male relatives were there, as were many other people I didn't know. I knew I had only been there long ago, as a child. A man at another table stood, called for attention, and pointed at me. "Look who's come back," he announced mockingly, "Why if it isn't Daniel, the heir to a long proud line of atheists!" I was going to argue, but I woke.

Next, I dreamt that my left thumb-nail had gotten very long and ragged. As I tried to cut it, it started to expanded, unfold and then unroll itself, until it was as big as a post card. It had been tightly folded and wrapped, growing into itself. I cut it off amazed that it could have gotten so big and ingrown without my realizing, and at how compactly wrapped it had been. Looking at my thumb I saw a slot under the skin, maybe a half inch deep just above the nail where the furled and folded nail had rested. Inside the hollow there were areas where minute green plants had started to grow, and areas with many small bloody scabs. I was happy to be able to rinse it clear, and with that I again woke, feeling well rested and fully awake for the first time in weeks.

How do I interpret this? I've decided that simply believing that the placebo effect is helping should be enough to cause the placebo effect to actually help, and that something as simple as a dream of cleansing should be enough to trigger this positive cycle. At present, I am not interested in hearing alternative explanations.