Alternative Medicine as a Guilty Pleasure: The Confession of a Relaxed Skeptic

Alternative Medicine as a Guilty Pleasure: The Confession of a Relaxed Skeptic

I’m a skeptic and I think alternative medicine is great.

Okay, that’s definitely going to be misconstrued, so I should clarify: I don’t think alternative medicine is medicinally effective (in the vast majority of cases — it’s of course possible that an “alternative” treatment is effective and medical science just hasn’t caught up yet, but in the paraphrased words of Tim Minchin, alternative medicine that works is just medicine) and in a lot of cases I don’t think alternative medicine is ethical to prescribe or recommend. I’ll argue with family members about homeopathy, herbal detoxification and colour therapy until the proverbial cows come home from their proverbial grassy Alpine slopes, and I’m filled with sadness when I hear about a cancer patient forgoing chemotherapy for an “anti-​​cancer” diet. Etcetera etcetera. Classic skeptical stuff.

But for all my wariness and the pseudo-​​learned opinions (skeptical groupthink is always fun to think about — you should try it sometime) that have been stuffed into the parts of my brain I consider “rational”, I can never shake the profound sense of enjoyment I feel when I think about or am exposed to certain alternative medical treatments. Of course, I’ve never actually paid someone to stick needles into the upper layers of my skin, but watching YouTube videos of an acupuncture session is really soothing. Like, profoundly soothing. Reflexology is nonsense (how and why the hell would our feet evolve to be perfect neurological maps of our internal organs?), but watching someone have their feet manipulated while a calm voice explains how it’s benefiting their body feels amazing. In my opinion, guided chakra meditations are some of the most relaxing things in the world.

Why is this happening? I’m a goddamn skeptic! I think it’s deeper than a vicarious enjoyment of someone else relaxing (although that definitely plays a part in the cases where I’m watching someone else undergoing the treatment), because it’s almost like some section of me wants to believe that the treatment is actually doing something to the person (or me, depending on what I’m watching). I suspend my disbelief, at least emotionally, go along with it, and then I’ll nearly be able to feel the chakra energy from the earth or the stars or the air (or whatever) flowing through the part of my body I’m concentrating on, or imagine the qi pathways being unblocked in the person’s arm and shoulder as the last needle finds its place.

I swear to you that I’m not about to flip out and become a naturopath. I promise.

As much as I don’t like to admit it, humans always prefer simple explanations to complex ones, at least on a base level. Pharmacology is complicated: drugs have messy chemical structures, they affect different organs, tissues, cells and proteins in different ways, and sometimes those effects are hard to predict. Real biology is a tangled web of interactions and we don’t understand it as much as we would like. Alternative (or “traditional”) systems of how the body works medically are a lot simpler: energy flows through these channels and if it gets blocked you get sick; or rubbing this part of your foot will cure your stiff neck; or this ultra-​​dilute duck liver will cure your flu because “like cures like”. They might not actually make sense, but there are parts of your brain that don’t care about sense, they care about simplicity. And simplicity abounds in alternative medicine.

A person who actually believes in these things might argue at this point that the real reason I feel something when I watch these videos is that it truly is affecting me in a real, physiological way — the acupuncture on the screen is somehow unblocking my own qi pathways or my spirit is mirroring the captured spirit energy trapped by the recording. I don’t think this is the case: I’m still skeptical of the claimed physical basis for these treatments, or the claim that they work at all. But I think their effect on me is extremely telling of one of the reasons alternative medicine continues to be embraced by a certain segment of the population.

Most alternative medicine (barring some herbal remedies that are actually effective) “works” through the placebo effect, whereby people judge a treatment’s effectiveness based not on how the treatment is actually affecting them, medically, but how they expect the treatment to affect them. Sugar pills that a person believes will reduce the pain they are feeling may in fact reduce the pain they are feeling. A saline injection that a person believes will make them “feel better” may make them feel better, whatever that means to them. Placebos work because psychological aspects of a person’s illness are somewhat subjective and can be malleable: a change in belief can alter how you feel. While a placebo might not cure you, it may make you feel like you’re recovering, even though it’s doing nothing to change the objective characteristics of your illness, like duration or your capacity to infect other people.

But positives changes in subjective symptoms like pain, tiredness or low energy levels aren’t the only reason a lot of people like alternative medicine. Like me, they’re drawn to the calming effects of the treatment: it just feels good to get a massage and believe that it’s going to ward off disease. And while a lot of universities and medical colleges are trying to turn things around, it’s still the case that a good many doctors don’t have interpersonal skills comparable with those of your local homeopath or naturopath. In many people’s minds, doctors see you as a sack of organs, while alternative medical practitioners see you as a person. Guess who they would prefer to have treat them for back pain?

Of course, this all ties back to the placebo effect. Mood has a well-​​known capacity to affect the perception of pain: have you ever stubbed your toe when you’re angry? It feels like Satan is tipping your foot in hellfire. Treatments that feel subjectively “effective” or even straight-​​out pleasant will always be instinctively preferred over treatments that have negative side effects (that may cover up the positive effects of the treatment and give you an overall negative experience), at least for a significant proportion of the population. Why get vaccinated with a (mildly) painful injection, when you can lie down in a great-​​smelling, softly-​​lit room, while an attractive reiki practitioner manipulates your “energy field”? It’s relaxing as hell and feels amazing (even though you don’t really have an energy field to manipulate). And that’s not a euphemism.

Should real medicine get in on the act and add a bit of relaxation to its treatments and consultations? It’s not a bad idea. But I think only letting medical students with soothing voices graduate might be going a bit far.

So where does this leave me? I’ll never give money to a homeopath or reflexologist to relax me with pseudoscience, but I’ll still watch their videos, as conflicted as that makes me feel. Reading a fantasy novel can be fun and engaging, so why can’t watching a fantasy medical YouTube video be treated the same way? Wizards aren’t real, but they sure are entertaining.

[Creative Commons licensed Flickr photo by witchesfallscottages]