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PBS NewsHour: The placebo effect’s role in healing, explained

for PBS NewsHour

Photo Credit: Ben Herrera

High in the mountains northeast of Mexico City, practically hanging off the side of a mountain, is the tiny town of San Pablito, Puebla. Located in a lush cloud forest, the town isn’t easy to reach. The last 35 miles alone take two hours by car, zigzagging above stunning forested canyons and past waterfalls that seem to materialize out of the ever-present mist.

The laughably steep streets and constant fog make the town feel almost magical, which is fitting since it’s for magic that the town is famous.

San Pablito is home to a unique style of healing that employs figures cut out of special paper, called amate. Curanderos, or healers, or, use these figures to absorb the evil spirits behind all manner of physical maladies.

Guadalupe Huaxi is one of the most popular curanderas in San Pablito. A small and formidable Otomi woman (the local indigenous community), she’s quiet and thoughtful. Sitting on her back porch, she said her work straddles the old world and the new.

“Most people come here with some sort of pain, something that has not responded to medicine,” she said through her husband, Juan Merida, who translates into Spanish. “Sometimes you go to a doctor, but medicine doesn’t work.”

 

I’m here to understand the intersection of faith and healing in this community, but I’m also interested in relief for a knee that been inexplicably bothering me since I turned 40 last year. After a short conversation with her husband I learn that part of the ceremony may involve her taking blood from my knee with her mouth.

While researching my book, “Suggestible You”, on the science of belief, I have visited healers in the U.S., China and Mexico. I’ve been blessed, cursed and tortured in countless ways. But this would be the first time anyone chewed on my knee.

Huaxi and Merida began the ceremony, wiping me down with leaves and creating a sort of altar with candles and small paper figures.

Huaxi finished her chanting, had me sit down on a bed and leaned over me. She attached her mouth to my knee and began sucking. I half expected her to cut me or bite me until I bled but she never broke the skin. The drawing of blood, it seems, is metaphorical and not literal. It was still an odd feeling and an awkward position to be in and I was suddenly aware of every sensation in my knee. It went on for several minutes. Occasionally, she spat the foul “blood” into a packet of herbs.

Eventually it was over, and she told me to abstain from sex for a few days while Merida took my bad blood out to dispose of it. I thanked them, chatted a bit more and then walked back to the car. It was only then that I realized I didn’t feel any pain in my knee anymore. I’d been cured.

Some might say that Huaxi healed me and others that I was deluding myself. But in recent years, scientists in the U.S. and Europe have been investigating an area of brain science that splits the difference between these two reactions – the placebo effect.

(For the full story click here.)