It's all in your head, luckily

Anti-depressants of the SSRI type (= selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, i.e. Prozac and other similar brands), have been under fire for a long time. Some counter-arguments have had a moralistic ring -- it's not decent to administer "happiness" to people by pill, that's God's turf. Others have zeroed in on the considerable side effects of the pills. And still others have simply doubted their effectiveness -- isn't it mostly just a placebo effect?

Now a large meta-study (= a statistical analysis of a large number of previously performed clinical tests) has made the media, because it shows that the effectiveness doubts are indeed justified: the SSRI pills rarely perform better than placebo (Kirsch I, et al: Initial Severity and Antidepressant Benefits: A Meta-Analysis of Data Submitted to the Food and Drug Administration; PloS Medicine. Vol 2, No. 2).

This may be an interesting topic, in itself. But that is not what caught my eye in the report. Rather, it was the fact that in the cases where SSRI pills showed significantly better antidepressant effects than placebo (which happened with very severely depressed patients), then the control group (the severely depressed patients who had received the "fake pills", the placebo) didn't actually show any placebo effect at all.

A startling result

So the placebo effect can be turned off! This is a truly startling result, with far-reaching consequences, above all philosophical ones. In all tests of pharmaceuticals, even of surgical procedures, the control group (the ones who receive "fake" pills or are submitted to "fake" procedures) always get better as well. This is the ubiquitous placebo effect, constantly haunting medical researchers. Nobody knows how the placebo effect works, but everybody knows that it truly works and that it can be truly significant.

The new SSRI pill meta-study shows that the placebo effect is indeed (mostly) present even in this case. But -- in patients with very severe depression, there is no longer any placebo effect. Severely depressed patients who receive "fake" pills don’t get any better, while all moderately depressed patients got significantly better from their placebo pills.

The power of your mind

To me this presents conclusive evidence that the old saying "it's all in your head" is literally true. Severely depressed people, whose "heads" are no longer working properly, don't have the mental power of combating illness. This may sound depressing, but in fact the reverse is true. It finally demonstrates that our sound minds DO HAVE a healing power over our unwell bodies.

Because if something can be turned off, then this very fact proves its physical existence -- you can't turn off nothingness. So the placebo effect is not magic, not an "act of God", just a consequence of our marvellously well-designed brains, of evolution. We suspected this all along, of course. But now it has at last been scientifically demonstrated.