Many studies suggest that surgery is not better than qigong. Below is a cute article about the struggle to understand placebo effects. People studying this would do well to dive into cross-cultural notions of healing, medical anthropology and such. War Magic Medicine, etc...
We have tested the idea that what a patient believes is the cause of placebo, and belief isn't the cause. Placebo's work on small children and animals, do they really think they are convincing animals to "believe?" But people who are embedded in Protestant Scientistic culture just can't hear that. It is a good example of cognitive dissonance.
But they are asking the right question: What makes a ritual potent? Creative ritual passes through an experience (of being) before categories. That is what the term Taiji means. It comes from Daoist ritual and it means an experience that is before categories. When categories are coming back into being (from stillness or timelessness or emptiness), they can be changed, or re-established. Categories lead to myths. Myths are module narratives about the gods, or simply about the way things are, or about those agents which have power over various categories of being. These modular narratives can be re-ordered in ritual. They can have different orders with the same efficacy (or purpose), or the same order but with an opposite efficacy (or purpose). These modular narratives are followed by beliefs. Rituals can start with beliefs and end with beliefs, but beliefs are not the agents of change. Rituals change categories or change the way we experience categories, or change the way we assign meaning to categories.
And that is what we should be looking at when we are trying to understand placebo. I know it is a complicated idea. But when I finally understood it I could see the word differently.
I've been reading Claude Lévi-Strauss! Does it show? I just summarized his analysis of the nature of ritual above. And, this analysis is a powerful tool for looking at Daoism. The sync-up is astounding. He was trying to talk about the structure of human cultures, and comes close to describing the efficacy of Daoist ritual. I started reading Claude Lévi-Strauss last year on the recommendation of Douglas Farrer, one of the founders of Martial Arts Anthropology. This Summer at the Daoist Studies Conference in France, I was around people who were steeped in Lévi-Strauss. Perhaps because he wrote in French, he had a bigger effect there. I hope more people will read him (so I have more people to talk to).
To go a bit further, Catholic ritual in Europe was controlled by a priesthood, and it gave those priests the ability to define God's will. Protestantism was an anti-ritual movement which successfully took the power of ritual away from the priesthood, and made the mythology of Christianity literal, and therefore, fixed by (and to) belief. Once categories were fixed, linear thinking was able to take off like a rocket ship to the moon. Linear thinking is both powerful and dangerous. I think we should try to understand its origins more thoroughly.
I expect this article will get me to the top of Google! If you liked this article you'll love my book, it is ten times deeper and ten times easier to understand!