Experimental research into placebo effects demonstrates that routine biomedical pharmacological and procedural interventions contain significant ritual dimensions. This research also suggests that ritual healing not only represents changes in effect, self-awareness, and self-appraisal of behavioral capacities but involves modulations of symptoms through neurobiological mechanisms. Recent scientific investigations into placebo acupuncture suggest several ways that observations from ritual studies can be verified experimentally. Placebo effects are often described as ‘non-specific’; the analysis presented here suggests that placebo effects are the ‘specific’ effects of healing rituals.
For over 20 years, Linda Buonanno lived in fear that her irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) would suddenly interrupt her daily routine with frequent trips to the bathroom and unbearable cramping. Buonanno, now a 71-year-old medical assistant and hairdresser from Methuen, Mass., tried everything from drugs to dairy-free diets. Nothing worked. She remembers a particularly tough period over 10 years ago, when she was working on the factory floor of a medical-device company for up to 10 hours a day, six days a week. When an IBS episode would strike, her co-workers would cover for her as she huddled in a corner, keeled over in pain. If she wanted to go dancing with friends at the local club on Sunday, Buonanno would stop eating on Friday so there wouldn’t be anything in her system to interrupt her plans. “It was a horrible way to live,” she says. One day in 2009, she saw a TV ad looking for people with IBS to enroll in a study. She signed up and was thrilled when she was among about 80 people selected to take part in a first-of-its-kind clinical trial.