NEWS & UPDATES: Placebos are real medicine for some people…And art’s place in this new landscape


Some pains are real, like when you skin your elbow; others have no organic cause. In my book review for Leonardo Reviews on Understanding Pain, the main takeaway is that pain is part of our consciousness, learning and memory. This led to my post on pain and art: What’s Pain Got to Do with It? In art, It’s Everything, quoting centuries of art and philosophy, and the latest neurobiology.

Pain is real, always—for the sufferer. But it’s been somewhat put down by experimental evidence that many respond to placebos equally well, as if their pain is fake, in their head. Well, all pain is in our head, as are all thinking and sensations. The brain is central command which knows what’s happening in every part of our body—and it sometimes makes up things too, from faulty memory. I have written about it here.

Now the newest frontier for pain treatment as well as all medicine is that placebo effects are real! About a third of the population have the genetic mechanism to essentially ease their symptoms and suffering in response to suggestions: placebos, or doctor’s appearance, words, office interiors…etc. (See article from the Harvard Medical School magazine).We cannot overlook the important implications: the body’s self-healing capability.

Are those who respond to placebos the lucky chosen in the DNA lottery? Well, remember my previous post about epigenetics: that genes don’t tell all. Genes respond to our life’s experiences: learning and memory involve temporary gene modifications which could become permanent, though not usually inheritable.  This is where art comes in. A recent report from Sweden’s Karolinska Institutet shows that subconscious image exposure could alter our level of pain.

Looking at art that recalls pleasant memories could thus be healing. But what about all the conceptual art, the macabre and the abject that we are seeing so much of nowadays—including many in the current Venice Biennale. I will be posting on my impressions from a recent visit.

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