Suggestible You

Image by Erika Larsen. Alameda, California, 2016.

Think about the last time you took an aspirin. That feeling of relief as soon as you swallowed the pill. Could you sense the drugs move immediately to your head to relieve the pain? I know I can. I drop the pills in my mouth, follow it with a swallow of water, my raging headache takes two steps back, giving me room to think again.

There's just one problem. Pain relievers take an average of 20 minutes to kick in. What I felt was my own expectation releasing morphine directly into my brain. This project is focused on a funny quirk of the human brain that has come to define not just modern medicine but just about every alternative therapy known to man. Namely that the human brain doesn't like to be proven wrong. So much so that it will occasionally bend reality to match its own expectations.

From a scientific perspective, the project will cover concepts like the placebo effect, hypnosis and false memories—commonly held up as the effects of suggestion. But in truth, that’s just the start. Using these ideas, it will touch on everything from chronic pain to fad diets to depression drugs. Suggestion plays into acupuncture, warlocks, Christian healing ministries, homeopathy, mass hysteria, miracle cures, and the ways that fear can harm or even kill a person.

These are the concepts Erik Vance explore in "Suggestible You." It's stories take us from laboratories of the NIH to the streets of Beijing to the jungles of Mexico to the suburban streets of Alameda, California. It explains why mainstream drugs today are so expensive and why alternative treatments are so popular.

We are, all of us, highly suggestible creatures. And thank goodness for that.