Thursday, April 14, 2005

While at university I had a student subscription to New Scientist, which was much cheaper than picking each issue in the newsagents. Unfortunately five years of reading it every month left me feeling a bit burnt out on New Science. Now I pick up the occasional issue and really enjoy it. (I have much the same relationship with Private Eye, which I also love sporadically picking up).

The point of that early morning ramble was that there is a great article in this month’s New Scientist which I found via Neil Gaiman’s blog, rather than the more conventional way: Thirteen Things That Do Not Make Sense.
Most interesting is the very first Thing, which concerns the placebo effect:
DON'T try this at home. Several times a day, for several days, you induce pain in someone. You control the pain with morphine until the final day of the experiment, when you replace the morphine with saline solution. Guess what? The saline takes the pain away.
This is the placebo effect: somehow, sometimes, a whole lot of nothing can be very powerful. Except it's not quite nothing. When Fabrizio Benedetti of the University of Turin in Italy carried out the above experiment, he added a final twist by adding naloxone, a drug that blocks the effects of morphine, to the saline. The shocking result? The pain-relieving power of saline solution disappeared.
I think that’s brilliant. I wonder if it explains the following.

I was at a party a couple of weeks ago and was warned that there would be a dog there. As I can sometimes get a bit wimpy-allergy-like around hairy animals I took some anti-histamines before going and thought nothing more of it. As it turned out the dog couldn’t make it (Hi Cindy if you’re reading this! Which I suppose is unlikely unless someone invents a canine interface for the internet in your lifetime… But I digress!).
Here’s the weird bit - I still exhibited all the symptoms an allergic reaction. My nose was runny, my eyes streamed, and I felt a bit crap.

So I was allergic to a dog that wasn’t there.
Despite medicating myself against pet allergies.
Now - if the dog had been there would I have been okay? If I hadn't taken the drugs would I still have been allergic to a non-existent dog?

I’ll leave the story of how I sunbathed one day and got sunburnt on my legs despite wearing trousers till another day. I’m pretty sure there’s a proper scientific explanation for that one.

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