IS RELIGION merely a placebo: a sugar-coated pill containing no genuinely active ingredient but merely harmless pap, whose regular ingestion confers no more than a self-induced psychological boost of indefinable value? My musings are prompted by Horizon — The Placebo Experiment: Can my brain cure my body? (BBC2, Thursday of last week).
In Blackpool, more than 100 long-term sufferers from chronic back pain were invited to try a new drug over three weeks; half of them, they heard, would be taking a placebo as a control. Forty-five per cent reported significant improvement — some a spectacular change of life and an infusion of energy and hope.
In fact, they were all taking the placebo, which contained no drugs. When the truth was revealed, the presenter, Dr Michael Mosley, was eager to reassure them that they were not gullible fools. Hard-edged research now proves that, for a significant number of people, the brain responds to a placebo by releasing painkilling chemicals. Lack of pain means that the body relaxes, resumes exercise, and the back is strengthened and starts to heal. So there is a real, measurable change, and the effect continues even when the patient knows that the treatment is a placebo.
Something very strange is going on here, perhaps with profound consequences. Given the right inducement, the brain/body can heal itself without recourse to drugs. How all this relates to religion, I leave you to decide: more research is needed.
It will take more than sugar pills to reverse the incontrovertible global catastrophe explored in Drowning in Plastic (BBC1, Monday of last week). Liz Bonnin travelled around the world, revealing how oceans are choking with our favourite material. It was a succession of distressing images: whole bays and creeks solid with plastic detritus; marine mammals cut to pieces by discarded fishing tackle; seabirds whose guts are solid with plastic waste — even shorelines near the North Pole are disfigured with plastic rubbish.
Worse are longer-term threats. Plastic breaks down into fragments that have now entered our food chain, and its surface encourages a lethal toxin that kills coral, fish — and, perhaps, us. She was eager to celebrate the positives she found, such as research that is finding seaweed-based alternatives to plastic; the natural clean-up offered by sea-grass meadows; and garbage banks that collect and recycle. But these are mere pinpricks in a very dark picture.
In The Cry (BBC1, Sundays), Joanna and Alistair are in his native Australia to fight for custody of his daughter from his first marriage when their baby vanishes. It is a horrible scenario; but our sympathy is strained by the slow, slow pace; by Joanna’s pervasive withdrawal long before the loss, keeping us at arm’s length; and by the fact that Alistair is a ghastly, self-centred bully.