Placebo by Subhadra Jayaraman

There was a time when my parents believed in a lot of spiritual superstitions and I would have to play along, despite little inconveniences. I was quite helpless of course; they would hardly acknowledge dissent from a 12-year-old (or for that matter, a 20-year-old). As I grew up and broke out of the nest, I stopped believing in them altogether and went one step further, scorning anyone who would be stupid enough to follow baloney like ‘auspicious times’ and ‘the evil eye’.

Later, I met people who would flaunt feng shui-modeled houses, grow ‘lucky’ plants, or have horseshoes hanging from doorframes. I have got my hair caught in multiple dream catchers and been suffocated by strong incense smoke in a six-by-six room. I know people who would not move into a house that was facing South (or was it West?). And then there are those who would never walk under a ladder or open an umbrella indoors. These small peculiarities are everywhere. Almost every person I know has a belief that is a quirk to me. Well, I have them too. Although I was that person who would be condescending to someone if they foiled a trip because ‘the time of flight take-off was inauspicious’ or if they kept a rabbit’s foot because it would ‘help them succeed in anything they did’, I slowly learned that these are the things that make us what we are. These stories in our head, these feelings we can’t quite explain, the safety we feel in performing an inexplicable ritual – are all there for a reason – placebo.

Placebo is a scientifically accepted and utilized concept. In medicine, it is something that has no therapeutic value, but the act of receiving it can cause a change in body conditions that is similar to an actual therapeutic treatment. Of course, this placebo effect is not real, and it wears away in time. But there are factual reports of Alzheimer’s or Huntington’s patients actually “feeling better” after just receiving a saline infusion instead of a drug. In layman terms, it’s like feeling ‘drunk’ after being given Coca Cola that you thought had rum in it.

A horseshoe doesn’t harness luck, but having it around makes you feel lucky, and why not let that feeling ride you to success? You won’t fare any better or worse in that interview if you leave at 10 AM instead of 9, but if 10 is auspicious, you might just ace with that confidence. There is no proof that any artefact or tchotchke will make your life better, but they sure bring a smile to your face and lift your spirits, so why not!

I won’t go into all those superstitions are actually harmful or restricting, but for most of us, it is small oddities that make us feel good about an activity or an exam or an important investment. It is a placebo – and it is welcome. We might even know that these are silly, but why not be silly if it gives us some peace?

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