Ellen Langer

Our Innate Power to Heal ·


A recent article in the New York Times by Barry Meier discussed the problems of setting guidelines for treating different patients suffering from the same disease. Creating one set of guidelines for diabetes, for example, might save money but some people will suffer grave health consequences from a treatment that helps others. While early research showed that excess glucose was responsible for blindness and kidney failure, leading to a glucose control guideline, later research revealed that others may suffer seizures or even die as a result of reduced glucose.

This problem will not go away by shifting the guidelines, or requiring more rigorous research as some argue. No matter how rigorous the research is that the guidelines are based on, some people will suffer. There are hidden decisions in medical research—dosage, times administered, subject population, context, definition of disease severity and so on—for which a slight change in any one of these could change the results of the study. As I’ve argued, research only yields probabilities, not absolute facts. Given that the data are only normative—what may be true for most people under the same circumstances—surely for some people it will prove to be untrue. None of us is the norm—none of us is us. This dilemma makes clear the importance of adopting a new way for people deal with health issues.

We have far more control over our health than most of us realize. My research—where in some studies we increase mindfulness and in others we eliminate negative health mindsets—has shown that not infrequently health can be restored and limits even extended by our minds. Indeed all of the research on placebos makes this clear. Placebos are powerful medication. The pills may be inert, but they unleash the innate power we have to heal ourselves.