Universal Placebos


A side project, and a source of considerable joy – Universal Placebos. The idea came originally from a class I was teaching at QUT. The discussion was on branding, and moved our thinking to the value of untraded intangibles. Pet Rocks. Cans of L.A. Air – things with no intrinsic value but (potentially) considerably actual and commercial worth.

My immediate interest in placebos, or more precisely, the so-called Placebo Effect, is in the realm of health and wellbeing, and our family has had recent experience with it. Ella was born with cerebral palsy – doesn’t effect her much, just that her left side is kinda clumsy and she sometimes takes a little longer to learn things. Her disability has only rarely been a ‘handicap’. Nevertheless, she has a few accompanying challenges, like chronic asthma and occasional small-scale epileptic seizures. These usually come about once a month, due to hormonal changes, and are mostly controlled with two anti-seizure medications.


Recently she decided to change her neurologist, and the new guy prescribed low-dose estrogen – ‘the pill’, to try and deal with this. The hormone, combined with the other medications, really knocked her around, so she phoned him and reported this. He concluded she was anxious around the time of her period, and prescribed an SSRI – an antidepressant. At this point, Ella decided .. well, f%&k that.


Now, the neurologist is a nice guy, very respected, experienced and qualified, and has a reputation for treating the ‘whole person’ – that’s why she went to him in the first place. But, in my view, he is a prisoner of his paradigm, and without realising it he was doing harm. In a way, he had no choice.


Ella was already getting treatment from two friends of ours – one an accupuncturist and one (our partner in U.P.) a homeopath – but now she decided to really get serious about these therapies, plus take up 10 minutes of meditation a few times a week. And the occasional placebo. (Of course, in terms of conventional medicine, *all* of these therapies are placebos!)


And she is *so* different. Not only is she able to control her seizures – she has only had one small event since Christmas – but she amazes us with her increased confidence, independence and personal sense of resilience and self efficacy. She says she can feel when the seizure wants to happen, and take steps to sit, calm herself, and take a homeopathic remedy, and watch it go away.


What’s going on? Psychosomatic something-or-other? Voodoo? God in the machine? Personally, I don’t care – I am seeing the results, put into sharp relief by the failure of conventional therapy. I’m not against western medicine – it saved my life a couple of years ago – but I wish its practitioners would realise that it has boundaries and instilled assumptions about how the world works in its own right.


Latest, and encouraging, news – Universal Placebos have been taken up as a product line by Sydney’s iconic REMO general store, also online.


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