Go for it: The journey from paraplegia to flying

After a catastrophic event occurs a person often becomes depressed as the future looks bleak. One may keep asking, ”Why, why me?” When people accept–acceptance without resignation— and concentrate on the small steps of the journey towards their goal, remarkable changes may occur. The challenge is to focus on new possibilities without comparing to how it was in the past. The limits of possibility are created by the limits of our beliefs. We may learn from athletes who aim to improve performance whereas clients usually come to reduce symptoms. As Wilson and Peper (2011) point out, Athletes want to go beyond normal—they want to be superb, to be atypical, to be the outlier. It is irrelevant what the athlete believes or feels. What is relevant is whether the performance is improved, which is a measurable and documented event”. They have described some of the factors that distinguish work with athletes from work with clients which includes intensive transfer of learning training, often between 2 and 6 hours of daily practice across days, weeks, and months. This process is described by the Australian cross-country skier, Janine Shepherd, who had hoped for an Olympic medal — until she was hit by a truck during a training bike ride. She shares a powerful story about the human potential for recovery. Her message: You are not your body, and giving up old dreams can allow new ones to soar. Watch Janine Shepherd’s 2012 Ted talk, A broken body isn’t a broken person.


Wilson, V.E. & Peper, E. (2011). Athletes Are Different: Factors That Differentiate Biofeedback/Neurofeedback for Sport Versus Clinical Practice. Biofeedback, 39(1), 27–30.

Shepherd, J. (2012). A broken body isn’t a broken person. Ted talk. http://www.ted.com/talks/janine_shepherd_a_broken_body_isn_t_a_broken_person

Evoking your healing potential: You are your placebo

Be careful what you think. You may get what you wish.

The power of the placebo and nocebo are remarkable and often overlooked in medicine. With a placebo, severe chest pain disappears with mock surgery, Parkinson’s tremors stop, knee pain is eliminated following mock arthroscopic knee surgery and even  of lymphosarcoma can be affected (Beecher, 1961; Benedeteti, 2007; Moseley et al, 2002; Kirkley et al., 2008; Klopfer, 1957; Moerman & Jonas, 2002). On the other hand, nocebo can increase pain, accelerate cancer growth, and cause death (Cannon, 1942; Klopfer, 1957; Benedeteti, 2007). These are demonstrations of the self-healing and non-healing potential intrinsic within each of us.

The placebo response (from Latin, “I shall please”) is the beneficial physiological or psychological effect that results from the administration of an otherwise ineffective or inert substance, procedure, instruction. and/or environment.  An example of placebo on neuron activity is demonstrated with  a patient who has Parkinson’s disease (see figure 1).

Fig 1.Figure 1. Recording the activity of single neurons from the brain of an awake patient suffering from Parkinson’s disease. Both the recording apparatus (a) and the electrode track (b) can be seen. In (c), the activity of a single neuron in the subthalamic nucleus can be seen before and after placebo administration (reproduced from: Benedeteti, F.(2007). The Placebo and Nocebo Effect: How the Therapist’s Words Act on the Patient’s Brain. Karger Gazette, 69)

The nocebo response (from Latin, “I will harm”) may evoke the non-healing process and reactivate symptom/disease producing process and experiences. The nocebo response can be evoked by ineffective or inert substances, procedures, instructions, and internal and external environments which by themselves have no known effects.

The placebo/nocebo response is modulated by our covert cultural, familial and personal beliefs, limitations and expectations. The placebo/nocebo effects are the actual demonstrations that the limits of our beliefs are the limits of our possibilities. This process is well described  in the recent published book, You are the Placebo: Making Your Mind Matter, by Chiropractor Joe Dispenza.

Fig 2Dr. Dispenza describes the classic studies of placebo, mental processes and possible mechanisms by which placebo effects occur and disappears and how our thoughts and expectancies create our reality.  The placebo transforms the inner beliefs and give the person the experience of improved health which transforms beliefs. In many cases we can experience improvement but are pulled back into our previous beliefs and self-images of illness by inner and outer cues which are associated with disease process.

The book describes of the covert conditioning process by which we return to our old self and may maintain illness. It is challenging to maintain new beliefs and act/think in new patterns. The internal mental chatter and doubts flood our awareness. Even the question, “How long will the improvement last?” re-evokes the associative mental conditioned disease patterns. If it is possible to interrupt and transform our thoughts moment by moment, minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day and not just for 15 minutes of practice, remarkable changes are sometimes possible. Every thought that triggers an association of the illness state needs to be interrupted and redirected. When patients somehow transform their thoughts, it may result in reversing and eliminating illnesses such as polyostotic fibrous dysphasia, Hashimot’sthyroiditis or chronic lympocytic thyroiditis, and secondary progressive multiple sclerosis.

I highly recommend this book for its outstanding description of placebo/nocebo and cognitive a model of the conditioning processes that underlie it. The book offers hope and inspiration for many patients who  accept “what is/was” and  are open to the present and future possibilities without judgement.

The book’s cases  show that it is possible to reverse chronic “incurable illnesses.” Patients and health care providers should read the book–it provides hope, empowerment, and possibility. It is an antidote to the feeling that there is nothing one can do except to live with the illness. Medicine needs to explore and study the unusual patient who has reversed the disease process and ask, “How can we understand this process and teach it to other patients.”

The major limitation of the book is the absence of data; namely, what percentage of the patients/participants who have practiced Dispenza’s techniques have actually benefited and transformed their illness? The book would be more useful if it included both successful and the many unsuccessful cases. This would help patients who do the practices and do not improve. These patients sometimes  blame themselves and failed at their self-healing—a process that increases depression and hopelessness. We need to realize that many factors affecting our health and illness are beyond our control.

Although I agree with Dr. Dspenza’s basic premise that our beliefs, acceptance of what is and being open to the present and future supports healing. This perspective is only part of the whole picture. Health and illness are multi-factorial and many factors are not within our control.

Read the book and skip chapter 8, The Quantum Mind.  This chapter attempts to describe the physics of the healing process using quantum physics.  As I did not understand quantum physics and quantum mind, I asked my colleague, James Johnston, PhD, who is an expert in quantum physics, to read it for accuracy. He confirmed my gut reaction when he said, “the quantum physics description of how energy changes is pseudo science, involving an incomplete understanding of quantum theory.”

Beecher, H.K. (1961). Surgery as Placebo. JAMA, 176(13), 1102-1107.

Benedeteti, F. (2007). The Placebo and Nocebo Effect: How the Therapist’s Words Act on the Patient’s Brain. Karger Gazette, 69.

Cannon, W. B. (1942). “Voodoo” death. American Anthropologist, 44(2), 169-181.

Dispenza, J. (2014). You are the Placebo: Making Your Mind Matter. Hay House, Inc.

Kirkley, A. et al,. (2008) A Randomized Trial of Arthroscopic Surgery for Osteoarthritis of the Knee. New England Journal of Medicine. 359:1097-1107

Klopfer, B. (1957). Psychological Variables in Human Cancer. Journal of Projective Techniques, 21, (4), 331–340.

Moerman, D.E., & Jonas, W.B. (2002). Deconstructing the Placebo Effect and Finding the Meaning Response. Annals of Internal Medicine. 136 (6), 471-476.

Moseley, J.B., et al, (2002). A controlled trial of arthroscopic surgery for osteoarthritis of the knee. New England Journal of Medicine. 347(2), 81-88.




Change Illness Beliefs with Words, Biofeedback, and Somatic Feedback*

I never felt that thinking about my work affected my body. I was totally surprised to see my body’s reaction on the computer screen. I now realized how I contributed to my illness and could see other ways to  change and improve my health. The feedback made the invisible visible, the undocumented documented.

Use of words, biofeedback and somatic feedback to transform illness beliefs. Many clients are unaware how much their thoughts and emotions affect their physiology. The numbers and graphs on the computer screen show how the body is responding. Seeing the changes in the physiological recording and the  immediate feedback signals are usually accepted by the client as evidence, whereas the verbal comments made by a therapist might be denied as the therapist’s subjective opinion. The feedback is experienced as objective data—numbers and graphs ‘‘do not lie’’—which represents truth to the client. Clients seek biofeedback therapy because they believe the cause of illness is in their body, and then the biofeedback may demonstrate that emotions and cognitions influence their somatic illness patterns. This process has been labeled by Ian Wickramasekera (2003) as a ‘‘Trojan Horse’’ approach. Biofeedback and somatic feedback exercises provide effective tools for changing illness attributions and awaken the client to the impact of thoughts and emotions on physiology. Whether the feedback comes from a biofeedback device that records the covert physiological signal or is subjectively experienced through a somatic exercise, the self-experience is a powerful trigger for an ‘‘aha’’ experience—a realization that mind, body, and emotions are not separate (Wilson, Peper, & Gibney, 2004). Clinically, this approach can be used to facilitate changing illness beliefs and to motivate clients to begin changing their cognitive, emotional, and behavioral patterns. Clients begin to realize that they can be active participants in the healing process and that in many cases it is their mind-body life patterns that contribute to illness or health. For more information, case example and detailed description of a somatic feedback practice, download a pre-publication of our  article,  The Power of Words, Biofeedback, and Somatic Feedback to Impact Illness Beliefs.

*Adapted from: Peper, E., Shumay, D.M., & Moss, D. (2012). Change Illness Beliefs with Biofeedback and Somatic Feedback. Biofeedback. 40(4), 154–159.