WE GENERALLY talk about placebos with a measure of disdain. Oh it's just a placebo, we say, meaning that the drug or the treatment or the idea is useless, and that if it has any effect at all it's just because the patient naively thought it would.
But what others may dismiss as unscientific and therefore unreliable, Dr. Ernest Rossi embraces with hope. The placebo response, he says, is proof of the power of mind over matter, and especially over what's the matter with you.It is the jumping off point, Rossi believes, for a look at the undeniable connection of mind and body.
Rossi, a Jungian analyst and author of a dozen books on psychotherapy, will be centerpiece of the fourth annual Summer Institute in the Human Services, presented July 8 through 16 by the Graduate School of Social Work at the University of Utah.
Rossi will talk about what he calls "the psychobiology of mind-body healing" - a phrase, certainly, that evokes New Agers wearing crystals. But Ernest Rossi did graduate work in biochemistry before he switched to psychology, and he brings to his theories a thorough investigation of the innermost workings of the human anatomy, right down to the cellular level.
Under the microscope, says Rossi, scientists have found proof that the thoughts we think and the emotions we feel really do influence our health. Expanding on the well-known stress research of Dr. Han Selye, Rossi says that we really can worry - or anger or frighten - ourselves sick.
And, says Rossi, there is also evidence that we can think ourselves well.
Which brings us back to the placebo response and one of Rossi's favorite examples of it: The story of a man he calls "the likable Mr. Wright." Hospitalized with malignant tumors the size of oranges, Mr. Wright was considered by his doctor to be terminal.
In those days, the mid-1950s, cancer treatment consisted mainly of X-rays and nitrogen mustard. But about the time that Mr. Wright lay gasping for breath in the hospital, the press carried reports of a new "wonder drug," Krebiozen.
Mr. Wright was sure this was the answer to his prayers, and he begged his doctor to give him an injection. Mr. Wright was really too sick to be a good candidate for the limited supply of Krebiozen, but he was persistent as well as enthusiastic, so the doctor gave in. That was on a Friday.
On Monday, the physician returned to the hospital, pretty much expecting Mr. Wright to be dead. To his surprise, the patient he had left wearing an oxygen mask three days earlier was now walking around the ward chatting happily with the nurses. X-rays of his tumors revealed they had shrunk to half their original size - or as the doctor described it, "the tumor masses had melted like snowballs on a hot stove."
Within 10 days, Mr. Wright was discharged from the hospital, "practically all signs of his disease having vanished." He even took up flying again.
Within a couple of months, however, newspapers began reporting that the clinics testing Krebiozen were getting no results. Mr. Wright read these news accounts and pretty soon he was back in the hospital with tumors.
At that point, his doctor decided to try an experiment. Telling Mr. Wright that the hospital had received a new super-refined, double-strength batch of Krebiozen, the doctor injected him with water. Mr. Wright was ecstatic, and again the tumor masses melted and his chest fluid vanished, and Mr. Wright began flying again.
Two months later, however, the American Medical Association announced that Krebiozen was worthless. Within a few days of this report, Mr. Wright was back in the hospital. And two days later he was dead.
Looking back on Mr. Wright's story 30 years later, Rossi concludes that the patient's beliefs about the drug - both good and bad - activated his endocrine, immune and autonomic systems to produce molecular substances that either healed or worsened his cancer. Both his positive and negative emotions, says Rossi, sprang from past experiences and memories - what Rossi calls "state-dependent memory, learning and behavior." The storehouse for this learning and memory, he says, is a section of the brain called the limbic-hypothalamic system.
Rossi's theory, one that he says is supported by new research in areas such as psychoimmunology, is that our thoughts enter the hypothalamus as electrical impulses, are filtered through the state-dependent memory, learning and emotions stored there, and are squirted out again as molecules. These molecules may be immunotransmitters or neuroendocrines or hormones. Rossi lumps them all together as "information substances" or "messenger molecules." These travel through the body to the cells and even to the genes.
In the immune system, for example, white blood cells that fight viruses, bacteria, toxins and tumors, have receptors on them that can be turned on and off by neurotransmitters of the autonomic and endocrine systems, which in turn are influenced by emotions, he says.
"The task of the psychotherapy of the future is to have a methodology to turn these systems on and off," says Rossi. One such methodology he believes, is hypnotherapy, with its ability to access "state-dependent" emotions - in other words, emotions that have as their basis a particular time and event.
The medicine of the future could utilize these methods, too, says Rossi, since most illnesses, he believes, "have a psychosomatic component." But he isn't holding his breath.
"It took more than a few centuries for humanity to believe and utilize the implications of Copernicus's finding that the earth revolves around the sun and not vice versa," writes Rossi in his 1986 book about mind-body healing. "Likewise, it seems as if it will take more than a few decades, if not centuries, for most people to understand and learn to use the mind's ability to facilitate healing at the cellular and biochemical level."
One placebo response that most people can relate to, although they don't understand the mechanism underlying it, is mommy kissing a hurt knee and making it all better. "All other placebos are built on that," he says.
Rossi, now 55, grew up in a bilingual family in Connecticut, and because his English was not very good he was thought to be retarded when he entered grade school. He was abused physically and sexually as a child, and from the time he was 7 until he was 15 he was apprenticed to a shoe repairman. His two big breaks, he says, came when his teachers realized he could read, and later, when he took a college placement exam and won a scholarship.
After getting his degree in psychology, he worked extensively with Milton H. Erickson, the father of hypnotherapy. But it wasn't until he began to experience cardiac symptoms at age 43 that he decided to look more closely into the scientific mechanisms of mind over molecule.
Rossi discovered that he could use the body's natural "ultradian rhythms" -psychophysiological cycles that occur every 90 minutes throughout the day - to heal himself. During these times, he says, the body naturally slows down and changes in much the same way it does during hypnosis.
Since he began taking these healing breaks, he says, he hasn't been sick in years.
Rossi will present his mind-body connection workshop July 9 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information about the workshop call 581-8913.