Your Reality is the Placebo


My thesis is meant to give you power over what your mind conjures up as “reality”. All too often, we hold beliefs that are detrimental to our well-being. However, through conditioning, resetting our expectations and finding new meaning, we can alter the narrative we find ourselves in; and bring more internal hope and peace. I’m not saying that you ought to make up or pretend that reality is different so that you will be happier. Rather, every (real) experience, (real) belief and (real) worldview can be re-interpreted and re-contextualized so as to bring out of the dark shadows: wisdom, joy and gratitude. My contention is that our reality is akin to a placebo pill: we put our power into a reality that conditions us, gives us an expectation of our future, and provides meaning.

Your Reality is the Placebo

Let’s just dive right into my argument … Your reality functions as a placebo effect that conditions you to accept a belief as worth pursuing, followed by an expectation that it will produce the same future results based on the heightened positive results experienced in the past, thus solidifying it as meaningful belief that is worth embodying as true.

We commonly think of a placebo as pill or injection used to trick people into believing something that isn’t true. Thus, we reduce it to simply a trick. What is often left out of the conversation is that when the patient takes the pill, if they truly believe in the supposed outcome, there can in fact be physiological and psychological changes that move the patient towards the presumed outcome. In other words, the patient creates a reality based on the belief that the pill will work. To minimize it as only a trick or delusion is to ignore the objective evidence that the placebo effect can work. Before moving on, allow me to explain in greater detail just how the placebo works.

The Elements of the Placebo

The placebo effect has three vital elements: conditioning, expectation and meaning. First, if a person keeps taking the same substance, his brain keeps firing the same circuits in the same way – in effect, memorizing what the substance does. The person can easily become conditioned to the effect of a pill or injection from associating it with a familiar internal change from past experience. Because of this kind of conditioning, when the person then takes the placebo, the same hardwired circuits will fire as when they took the drug. As associative memory elicits a subconscious program that makes a connection between the pill or injection and the hormonal change in the body, and then the program automatically signals the body to make the related chemicals found in the drug.

Second, expectation is formed around what we’re conditioned to believe will happen when we take the pill, and what we think that everyone around us (including our doctors) expects will happen when we do, thus affecting how our body responds to the pill.

plplLastly, the process of expectation elevates the meaning of the experience by which you consciously marry your thoughts and intentions with a heightened state of emotions, such as joy or gratitude. Once you embrace that new emotion and you get more excited, you’re bating your body in the neurochemistry that would be present if that future event were actually happening. It could be suggested that you’re giving your body a taste of future experiences. Your brain and body don’t know the difference between having an actual experience in your life and just thinking about the experience – neurochemically, it’s the same. So the brain and body begin to believe they’re actually in the new experience in the present moment. Quite simply, the conscious mind merges with the subconscious mind. Once the placebo patient accepts a thought as reality, and then emotionally believes and trusts in the end result, the next thing that happens is a change in their psychology and physiology.

Beliefs Are Placebos

My contention is that by connecting the placebo effect with the beliefs we hold, we can thus uncover the architecture of belief. We can define belief as trust and confidence in the acceptance that a statement or concept is true or exists. While belief consists of many trivial things (i.e. I’m typing on a laptop right now, and, I believe I am wearing a gray shirt, etc.), for the sake of brevity I will focus on the concepts that deal with life’s deepest existential questions such as: why should I not kill myself, and what is my highest aim on this planet? To answer these questions requires some kind of a belief-system that offers explanations or guidance.

gtgtgThe beliefs we hold, concerning one’s existential condition in the universe, follows the pattern of the placebo effect just mentioned: conditioning, expectation and meaning. The two examples I will simultaneously use to demonstrate this claim will be identified as (1) and (2), and explained as such:

(1) the religious belief of the justice of God provides hope in the midst of suffering

(2) the secular belief/goal in the pursuit of human flourishing provides gratitude in working together for a common good.

Both (1) and (2) conditions the person to the experiential effects in holding (1) and (2). The effects are varied but not limited to:

-Feeling of security in having a “why” deep life’s deepest concerns

-Feeling of hope and purpose with life

-Feeling of intentionality with life

-Positive feeling in having a plan/perspective to life’s challenges

It’s important to note that these feelings impact the neurochemistry of its adherents with hormonal changes that effect one’s physiology. As evidence of this claim, simply think of the emotions that rise when you think about how someone you care deeply for went out of their way to help you when you needed it most. The pleasant hit of dopamine in your brain is much different from the stress hormones of cortisol released when your flight/fight reflexes kick in. In essence, you get conditioned to accept that this is, well, good! The conditioning is further solidified in the environment when you surround yourself in a community of other fellow adherents, thus reinforcing that this belief is worthy of pursuing.

The expectation of (1) and (2) is grounded in the mental rehearsal in past experiences that creates the future reality that you will indeed receive the same dose of joy, security, hope, etc. Now (1) and (2) gain anticipatory feelings that look like, for example, (A) resting in God’s love will give me peace, and (B) a deep concern for the well-being of others will bring me happiness. Thus, expectation in now grounded in one’s psyche. The end result is that the conditioning and expectation gives the belief meaning. Now, the belief is concretized and justified as a noble pursuit.

kkmkmJust as the patient gives power to the external agent (the pill), you and I give power to beliefs. The power we give to the pill or belief will mold our reality. This is crucial when it comes to worldviews that we adopt to help guide us through life’s most perplexing existential questions. For example, hope and gratitude, at an existential stratum, are two psychological pillars of emotionality that – at a fundamental level – keep one from killing oneself. Hope gives the good, bad and the ugly a positive, optimistic or guiding context. Gratitude gives us the attitude and disposition for all of the good, bad and ugly.

Moreover, the psychological benefits of hope and gratitude prove to be the placebo that dampens the dread of death and tragedy, so much so, that religious people call it by another name: the justice of God. The justice of God is a conceptual placebo packed with propositions that has morphed throughout history to give man a “why?” to the most difficult questions. Therefore, the justice of God helps the religious person psychologically posture themselves before, during and after tragedy strikes, with the presupposition that whatever happens – no matter how bad – is part of God’s perfect and good plan.

Even secular man tackles the “why?” with other placebos that are, like the justice of God, rooted in hope and gratitude that are purely conceptual. For example, hope in leaving behind an altruistic legacy and hope in the progress of compassion and love. All of this with an attitude of gratitude that civilization has astonishingly blossomed from hominoids all the way to vast democracies where people cooperate and flourish. Herein lies the placebo of hope and gratitude, that function as the scaffolding and architecture of the reality we create. This is what gives belief power and meaning to life’s deepest existential questions.

In closing….

Your reality functions as a placebo effect that conditions you to accept a belief as worth pursuing, followed by an expectation that it will produce the same future results based on the heightened positive results experienced in the past, thus solidifying it as meaningful belief that is worth embodying as true.

A deeper point I wish to glean from my premises is that your reality is the placebo. Your reality is the placebo that shapes your attitudes and beliefs, thus altering your neural and physiological chemistry. The goal, however, is to realize that the placebo is not in the external pill, but in what your mind produces.

Just like a patient given a placebo pill who places their power in the external object (the pill) to bring about change, there is an internal placebo (e.g. beliefs/reality) that we give power to, that brings epigenetic changes. The internal placebo is the power we give to beliefs through conditioning, expectations and meaning. The power we give to beliefs change our physiological and psychological disposition.


My thesis is meant to give you power over what your mind conjures up as “reality”. All too often, we hold beliefs that are detrimental to our well-being. However, through conditioning, resetting our expectations and finding new meaning, we can alter the narrative we find ourselves in; and bring more internal hope and peace. I’m not saying that you ought to make up or pretend that reality is different so that you will be happier. Rather, every experience, belief and worldview can be re-interpreted and re-contextualized so as to bring out of the dark shadows: wisdom, joy and gratitude. My contention is that our reality is akin to a placebo pill: we put our power into a reality that conditions us, gives us an expectation of our future, and provides meaning.


**Possible Rebuttals**

My essay is done, but…..

It’s here that I can imagine someone quoting some positive psychology of “The Secret” that basically says: dream it and it will come true. Again, my argument is not centered on dreaming up your reality, or, faking it till you make it. Rather, it’s recognizing that our lives function as a story, and we are the lead actor in our life-long drama. And the way that we interpret our life depends on the beliefs and worldviews we hold dear. We alone are the one’s who give power to those beliefs and worldviews, just like the patient who gives power to the placebo pill. Moreover, the beauty of the placebo reality is that it can really change our psyche and physiology, thus improving our well-being.

I can also hear the secular person saying, “but at least my naturalistic worldview is more real than the religionist worldview.” By this, I presume he is meaning that the naturalistic worldview is more ‘objectively real’ than most (or all) religions. This, however, is a reductionistic argument on the part of the secular person, for it presumes that what is real is that which can only be objectively demonstrated. My claim is that reality has innumerable layers that lay subterranean beneath that which can be only falsifiable or testable.

For instance, we can say that the numbers 9 and 11 are objectively real – timeless symbols that are part of a mathematical system. However, they are so much more than that. One layer deeper, and we form a calendar whereby 9 stands for September and 11 stands for the days in September. A layer deeper than that triggers emotions of sadness, for it symbolizes tragic loss. Moreover, a layer under that is a shift in perception of “ground zero” in New York, and terrorism in general, since it hit so close to home. On the other hand, I have a friend who’s birthday is on September 11, so for her, her reality of those numbers are not all sad. My point is that “reality” is a multi-varied metaphor that is not necessarily objective, rather, it is subjectively experienced.


Anatomy of Belief

Written on 11/21/15 in Starbucks in Los Gatos with a grandè mocha and electronic dance music (EDM) pulsating through my brain. I did not proof read this entry. I typed my thoughts down quickly so I can enjoy the rest of my weekend.

With the recent terrorist attacks in France, I keep hearing people ask: how can the terrorist’s believe what they believe, and then hurt so many people? The answer is much more complicated than “they’re just primitive in their thinking,” or “they’re just following what the Koran says.” Everyone has a belief system; and that belief system brings a semblance of coherency and order to one’s mental construct. More importantly, beliefs attempt is bring clarity to ambiguity. But this begs the question: How can so many people believe such bizarre things? Here are some quick thoughts.

We are born to believe

iuhoiFirst of all, we are born to believe. Our brains are belief engines, evolved pattern-recognition machines that connect the dots and create meaning out of patterns that we think we see in nature. As Michael Shermer puts it, “We are descendants of those who were most successful at finding patterns.” There is a reason why I don’t grab at a hornet’s nest, or run through stop signs, or steal from Starbucks. The patterns I experience in life tell me that these examples would bring much harm to myself as well as others. Thus, I have cultivated a belief system based on the patterns I have experienced. My experiences help me better navigate through the world and find coherence. The patterns I see help me to reduce ambiguity and uncertainty in life. For instance, positive patterns of cooperation, reciprocity and altruism help solidify the ideal that these are needed virtues for healthy relationships. We constantly seek out pattern because they help determine what can advance or hinder our goals.

The brain is prepared to believe

With pattern recognition, we are put in a position to form causal links. For instance,

(a) If I grab a hornet’s nest … I will get hurt badly.

(b) If I lie all the time … I will have few (if any) friends.

(c) If I hear a bump in the night … It is most likely my cat and not ghost.

But sometimes we are stifled by our inability to form causal connections. For instance, encountering freak coincidences that leave you dumbfounded or even the appearance of the universe possessing a grand design leads most people away from simple natural explanations and towards supernatural ones. This inability to assign causal probabilities to sets of events around us often leads individuals to lump causal associations with non-causal ones. This is why the paranormal and the supernatural are so prevalent in our culture.

(a) A gust of wind blowing the wind chimes … is your deceased Aunt Betty saying “Hello”.

(b) Dreaming about a love interest and then bumping into him in the elevator … is how the Universe plays matchmaker.

(c) Praying for your struggling finances … and then getting a raise at work must be God’s giving you a miracle.

ljhkbouyjbnWhy is it, for millennia upon millennia, humans so easily give causal explanations that are supernatural in nature? The answer is that we are natural born supernaturalists, driven by our tendency to find meaningful patterns and impart to them intentional agency. Furthermore, there is a neurological component: when we do find meaningful patterns, it is reinforced in our brain. Out of  all the chemical transmitter substances sloshing around in your brain, it appears that dopamine may be the most directly related to the neural correlates of belief. In the divided brain stem there are pockets of roughly 15,000 dopamine producing neurons on each side that shoot out long axons connecting to other parts of the brain. These neurons stimulate the release of dopamine whenever it is determined that a received reward is more than expected, which causes the individual to repeat the behavior. The release of dopamine is a form of information, a message that tells the organism “Do that again,” or “This belief is good.” So humans will continue to see meaningful patterns which are reinforced by the brain – for better or worse. Human beings will never fully be comfortable with naturalistic explanations.

This explains why Academy Award Winners often give all the credit to God and so many football players genuflect after scoring touchdowns. Bronislaw Malinowski’s famous studies of superstitions among the Trobriand Islanders in the South Pacific demonstrate that as the level of uncertainty in the environment increases so, too, does the level of superstitious behavior. “We find magic wherever the elements of chance and accident, and the emotional play between hope and fear have a wide and extensive range.” He goes on to say,

“We do not find magic wherever the pursuit is certain, reliable, and well under control of rational methods and technological processes. Further, we find magic where the elements of danger is conspicuous.”

When individuals are unable to gain a sense of control objectively, they will try and gain it perceptively. We instinctively seek out patterns to regain control – even if they are illusory.

Beliefs are associated with self-righteousness, pleasure, and reward

idnwIndoctrination, when it feels like it makes sense, is a powerful and good feeling. Indoctrination amounts to inculcating individuals with specific ideas, attitudes, emotions, models, values, or cognitive strategies. These indoctrinated beliefs give structure, purpose, meaning to experience, ideologies, supposed evidence, and myths in highly specific ways. Indoctrination amounts to teaching others to respond in predictable ways to specific triggers – that is, it’s a form of brain control.

When the brain reinforces the indoctrination … watch out. No matter how magical the belief, when one finds the necessary structure and meaning in life triggered by ones brain chemistry, it will invariably fuel the passions and invigorate one’s worldview. I can personally attest to the intoxicating neurological euphoria of my Christian experience. Not only was it the dopamine in my brain reinforcing the belief, but also the reinforcement of what I felt in deep prayer. Prayer and deep meditation puts one’s posterior superior parietal lobe in sleep mode, thus giving a powerful feeling of, say, oneness with the universe. The parietal lobe a region of the brain that authors have dubbed the Orientation Association Area (OAA), whose job it is to orient the body in physical space (people with damage to this area have a difficult time negotiating their way around a house). When the OAA is booted up and running smoothly there is a sharp distinction between self and non-self. When OAA is in sleep mode — as in deep meditation and prayer — that division breaks down, leading to a blurring of the lines between reality and fantasy, between feeling in body and out of body.

But what does this look like? Well, I saw patterns in life and assigned non-causal associations, but those patterns added a bit of mystery and wonder to my world giving me a sense of awe – further priming me for [meaningful] magical thinking. Indoctrination of Christian doctrine entered my sphere and it quickly gave me an absolute structural foundation that brought coherence and purpose. This epistemic foundation was reinforced through repetitive rituals [prayer, church attendance, etc.] where neurological transmitters kept communicating: Behavior – Reinforcement – Behavior. Repeat sequence. Once my emotions became enraptured by the physiological and psychological effects, my belief was solidified. From 1997-2000, I was more than willing to die for my beliefs.

~ Wes Fornes

Part I- New Testament: Literal or Metaphorical ?

Flourishing Without Indoctrination

Words like “God-breathed” and “God inspired” are inventions of the Enlightenment that were constructed from a defensive posture in order to protect “the faith” from the bourgeoning skepticism of the Renaissance. Despite the growth of humanism in the 16th century, New Testament is nevertheless a precious work of literature that ought to be treasured for two reasons. First, it gives us insight into the quest for meaning, understanding and purpose within a first century Palestinian context. Second, it can help us today, especially if we read it from a metaphorical perspective. Metaphorical meaning can often give us more meaning and insight into our world.

Once upon a time there was a guy on his horse darting through the forest uncontrollably, when he spotted his brother up ahead whom he was quickly approaching. As he got closer, his brother yelled out, “Where are you going!” To which the man on the horse replied, “I don’t know, ask the horse!” So you see, the man lost control of the horse and was dashing through the woods erratically.

This Buddhist tale has a deeper ethical point. Often we become overcome with our emotions [i.e. anger, jealousy, bliss] that we lose our focus on the where we’re going in life. Thus, we must pull the reins on our emotions and gain control of ourselves. This Buddhist parable is always tucked in the back of my mind when I contemplate life balance in this hectic life.

Life lessons can help us understand life more clearly. But what if I became overly inquisitive with other aspects of this parable. Such as, did this literally happen? Was there a literal horse? The answer: who cares! With life lessons, it shouldn’t matter if it was a literal horse or if the serpent in the garden in the Bible was a literal talking snake. Rather, it’s about what the lesson means to the hearer. It’s about finding meaning.

When we look back at the history of religious persecution, it is hard not to see how the idea of literal interpretation of ancient texts has justified brutality, oppression and the marginalization of mass groups of people. Even today, for instance, Christian churches who are considered more “liberal” continue to have multitudes of ardent anti-homosexual protestors based solely on ancient writ from their scriptures. The ridged method of interpreting holy writings spills over to a literal Hell for unbelievers and a literal end times where Jesus comes back on a horse to save his followers. According to a 2013 OmniPoll study, 41% of all people in the United States believe we are living in the end times. Furthermore, 42% continue to believe in the creationist view of human origins according to a Gallup poll. This is fascinating given how far science has brought us as children of the Enlightenment era.

But were these texts meant to be understood literally? Moreover, should be approach the Quran, the Bible and Mormon writ the same way we would as if we were reading todays New York Times? My concern is primarily with one the most read documents known as the New Testament within the bible.    

This begs several questions:

Were ancient texts meant to be taken literally?

Would a metaphorical approach lead to the same brutal results?

Christianity is a development. The key word is “development”; and cultures develop within a historical context. The gospels, for instance, are products of early Christian communities in the last third of the first century. Rather than being divinely inspired, the gospels are written from a thoroughly Jewish apocalyptic perspective while embedded in Roman imperial hegemony that focused on military, economic, political and ideological power – all through conquest. To ignore this historical matrix is to completely miss what was going on. Ignoring the context leaves us with the Cliff Notes version of only a few biased Jewish perspectives.

Part of the 1st century historical matrix is that concepts such as “Son of God,” “Savior” and “Christ” were already woven into the fabric of Roman culture prior to Jesus. Furthermore, miraculous births and resurrections were already in progress, and more importantly, with many eyewitnesses. I want to stress, again, that these titles and wonders all pre-date Jesus. Octavian, the adopted son of Julius Caesar, carried the title “Son of God” (40 BCE). After the death of Octavian, the historian Suetonius writes that a high ranking official “saw Augustus’s image ascending to the sky.”

During the same time as Jesus roamed ancient Palestine, another miracle working itinerant preacher had already beat him to the scene. Apollonius of Tyana was his name. Allow me to quickly bullet point his divine similarities to Jesus:

  • His mother received a vision from heaven that informed her that her son would be divine.
  • His birth was accompanied by unusual divine signs in the heavens.
  • As an adult, he went from town to town teaching that the spiritual and material should be what humanity lives for.
  • He had a number of followers that were convinced that he was the Son of God.
  • He did miracles: healed the sick, casted demons out, and raised the dead.
  • His followers witnessed his ascension to heaven.
  • Recordings of his life was written down by Philostratus in which he did considerable research for the book using accounts recorded by eyewitnesses and companions of Apollonius.

Divinity was embedded into the culture at that time. And storytellers within this non-literary culture were more concerned about what the stories meant to their subjective life rather than fact checking for objective truth. Whether it involved Zeus, Apollonius or Jesus, it was a meaningful reflection of that particular ancient cultural milieu – not something that was meant to transcend all cultures all the way to the 21st century. After all, Jesus thought that the world was going to end within his generation. Mark 13:30 states, “Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.” While this blunder is quite embarrassing for Jesus, his apocalyptic prophecy never had the 21st century reader in mind.

I don’t write this to discount Christianity. I only wish to call a spade a spade. I wish to affirm that even though Christianity developed through human manufacturing, we can still treasure the Bible and glean moral lessons that help us flourish. This is my contention: indoctrination using God inspired texts fosters an “us/them” mentality with non-negotiable bronzed age ethics. In the end, I think this world would be better off if we trade the “absolute truth” of holy writ for absolute compassion for all people.

It is usually at this point when the Christian apologist will unleash his arsenal defending the authors and scribes of the Bible and the validity of the ancient manuscripts. Thus, Part II will address these anticipated questions.

Ideology: What We Believe Matters

A double shot of expresso with 2 pumps of white mocha as I sit thinking about the dangerous ideologies of 2014. So before I start, here is something I just came up with. A litmus test for your ideology (or religion):

  • Does your ideology seek to appreciate the beauty in all other ideologies?
  • Does your ideology resolve conflict through peaceful dialogue only?
  • Does your ideology limit the autonomy of individuals?

2014 saw the militant group Boko Haram claim responsibility for the death of 42 students in northern Nigeria. We also saw the uprising of ISIS and the continued slaughter of Hezballah (Party of God). I am not sure why this type of terror in the name of god should surprise us? After all, this has been going on for over 5000 years. Going back to 1209 C.E. every single occupant of the French city of Beziers was massacred. The city was taken by Catholic crusaders during the Albigensian Crusade, launched by Pope Innocent II in 1208. I am sure you have heard the phrase, “Kill them all. God will sort them out”? Well, this was coined by the Catholic crusaders. Except, their exact words were “Kill them all. God will recognize his own.” From burning alleged witches in Salem to the Spanish inquisitions, organized religion has a bloody past.

My point, however, is not to detail the bloody history of organized religion because we know it all too well. I believe we need religion, despite its bloody past. Why? Because religion is binds groups together in pursuit of a value system that encourages altruism and reciprocity. Believe it or not, even the terrorists who flew 2 planes into the World Trade Centers in 2001 were fighting for a value system based on altruism and reciprocity.

Religion is not the problem. Dangerous ideology is the problem. With or without religion, groups will band together and fight for their ideology. Ideology, after all is based on values. Whether it’s political, moral, or cultural – the need to violently or peacefully propagate and perpetuate ideologies will never end. Why? Because people will live with a set of values (good or bad), and those values matter. Values carry an incalculable and intrinsic worth. These values manifest themselves within families, human rights, and even animal rights.

Ideology rests on the foundation that a particular set of goals, expectations and actions ought to take place. Poisonous ideologies foster suppression, oppression, and incite hostility – but usually the name of a “greater good.” The danger with an ideology is that is carries the expectation that all of humanity ought to adhere to the ideology. Unfortunately, ideology most often resides in a small box of ‘absolutes’ and forgets the vast cultural diversity and pluralism that permeates the 196 countries and 7 billion people on earth. The only problem with this is that most people who are passionate about their ideology will think their way is the right way, contrary to all other ideologies. Poisonous ideologies are always cloaked in righteousness.

What we believe matters.

May we see the beauty in other faith and ideologies,

May be always seek peaceful dialogue without resorting to violence,

May we always respect and uphold the autonomy of every individual.