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Let’s pretend

28 February 2014

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AS LONG as you think it is real, does it matter whether it is actually real or not? Religion in general has long been accused of making a fat living by pedalling something that does not exist, which made the phenomena explored in Horizon's The Power of the Placebo (BBC2, Monday of last week) fascinating, but also somewhat close to home.

It presented current research into very weird areas of therapy: champion cyclists achieved greater speeds when dosed with a capsule that contained cornflour; fractured vertebrae were injected with a cement that creates a partial cure, but the same relief from pain could be induced if the surgeons performed an elaborate mimicry of the operation. Acupuncture procedures were shown to be effective when the needles were fakes.

It is all in the mind: if we trust that we are going to be helped, our brains produce the chemicals that kill pain or enhance energy.

But it is even odder than that: to avoid the immoral element of deception, long-term sufferers from acute bowel symptoms in the United States were given a course of what they were told were merely sugar pills, of no medical value. A significant proportion showed measurable improvement, such that now the trial is over they are desperately seeking a source from which they can buy their own supplies.

Perhaps the ritual of taking a medicament is in itself efficacious? This offers an interesting perspective on the practice of religion, and the conundrum of what is real and what is not. Trials show that placebos administered by empathetic doctors are more effective than when given in a mechanical, clinical manner. Perhaps, then, our well-being depends entirely on suggestion - either mediated by those we trust, or our self-created auto-suggestion.

Artefacts were celebrated in Bunkers, Brutalism and Bloody-mindedness: Concrete Poetry with Jonathan Meades (BBC4, Sunday before last). Meades is the most provocative TV-documentary maker around today; although his subject is architecture, his theses invariably lead us into questioning our culture, ideas, and attitudes.

The mode he employs is irritation: he avoids all attempts to charm or ingratiate. We should, he tells us, re-evaluate the so-called concrete monstrosities of the '60s. They do what architecture is supposed to do: inspire wonder and awe. Their uncompromising domination of landscape and townscape is the real thing, eschewing sentimental notions of partnership with nature, and, instead, through the brutal plastic medium of concrete, creating new natural forms. They fill in the vacuum left by the realisation of God's non-existence.

In contrast, in The Man Who Fought the Planners: The story of Ian Nairn (BBC4, Thursday of last week), an earlier architectural commentator proclaimed, in a cry of despair about the destruction being wrought on our country, that, in the shameful wreck of St Saviour's, Bolton, filmed shortly before it was razed to the ground, whatever loathsome man might do, God was still present.

Forty years after Nairn's early death, his passion for what creates good places for humans beings to live is receiving new attention. It was a deeply sad programme.

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