The Lourdes miracles were one of the first things that got me interested in the placebo effect and they got me thinking about the potential power that the placebo effect could have under the right conditions.

Sadly, we will probably never know for sure if the Lourdes miracles are the result of the placebo effect, but this doesn’t stop us thinking about it. And, I would also argue that if the Lourdes miracles are placebo responses, that doesn’t make them any less impressive or important.

What are the Lourdes miracles?

The Lourdes miracles are a total of 69 healing events associated with the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes in France (Sanctuaire Notre-Dame Du Lourdes, 2010). Unlike most ‘faith healings’, the Lourdes miracles are rigorously assessed by the Lourdes Medical Bureau and International Lourdes Medical Committee (ILMC) to identify if the healing event could be explained by current medical knowledge. The criteria that must be satisfied are as follows:

  • The original diagnosis must be verified and confirmed beyond doubt
  • The diagnosis must be regarded as “incurable” with current means (although ongoing treatments do not disqualify the cure)
  • The cure must happen in association with a visit to Lourdes, typically while in Lourdes or in the vicinity of the shrine itself (although drinking or bathing in the water are not required)
  • The cure must be immediate (rapid resolution of symptoms and signs of the illness)
  • The cure must be complete (with no residual impairment or deficit)
  • The cure must be permanent (with no recurrence)

With such a rigorous process, it is hardly surprising to learn that approximately 35 cases are submitted to the medical bureau each year, but only a handful ever receive further investigation. Of this, only 69 events have actually been declared miraculous since the first Lourdes miracle in 1858.

Once the Lourdes Medical Bureau and ILMC have been satisfied that the healing event was inexplicable by current medical knowledge, the case is passed on to the Catholic Church who can choose to declare the event a miracle.

How can the Lourdes miracles be explained?

Whilst, the Lourdes miracles are currently considered ‘scientifically inexplicable’, there are numerous ways in which people have endeavoured to explain the Lourdes miracles:

  • Some people believe that God is responsible for these miracles, as God does not have to work within the laws of nature.
  • Some people believe that medical science will advance and then the Lourdes miracles will become explicable by medical science.
  • Some people do not trust the verdict of the medical bureau and believe that there were flaws in the diagnosis or medical documentation. A misdiagnosis could enable healing to appear miraculous, when it would have been expected if the diagnosis had been correct.
  • Some people believe that sometimes strange and inexplicable events occur, but they do not necessarily attribute this to divine intervention.
  • Some people believe there may be a connection to the placebo effect.

As you may have guessed, I fall into the last of these categories. But I would hasten to add, for the benefit of any religious readers, a connection with the placebo effect does not have to make these events any less miraculous or any less connected to God. After all, if God were to exist, perhaps he would have created the mechanisms of the placebo effect to help the faithful to heal.

How are the Lourdes miracles connected to the placebo effect?

Given the infrequency of the Lourdes miracles and the important confidentiality of patient information, it is difficult to give any scientific analysis of the Lourdes miracles. With this in mind, all we can do is speculate over the possible mechanisms, by which healing events could be connected to the placebo effect at Lourdes.

Expectation of a cure

The shrine at Lourdes is a place of great importance in Catholicism: it is the site at which no less that 69 miracles have occurred. Every year, approximately 80,000 people go to Lourdes in search of a cure. It is reasonable to assume that the majority of these visitors are practicing Catholics or at least Christians from other denominations. These individuals, therefore, are more likely than the average person to expect a cure at Lourdes. Additionally, if they are particularly devout, they may have a firm belief in the healing powers of Lourdes, that would not be found in the average population. Since the early discovery of the placebo effect, expectation of a cure, has been known to play a part in the mechanisms of placebo response (although not necessarily in every case).

Conditioning and peak shift principle

Someone who has been brought-up to have Catholic beliefs, may have been conditioned to associate those beliefs with positive effects. Positive experiences can generate subtle chemical changes in the brain. These responses can be conditioned, so that when you experience a stimulus i.e. a religious environment, you experience a positive neurological effect.

‘Peak shift principle’ occurs when you experience a certain effect in one situation and in an exaggerated version of that situation, the effects are amplified (Chatterjee, 2014). For example, you may be scared of heights when you stand on top of a ladder, but you may experience vastly more fear if you were skydiving or standing on the top of a sky scraper. The same can be applied to more positive experiences. Therefore, if you had previously has more minor ‘healing experiences’ in religious settings, you may experience an amplified healing experience at Lourdes – arguably, the most important site for healing miracles in the Catholic world.

Psycho-physical response to the environment

These placebo responses, could be initiated by the environmental cues at Lourdes:

  • The ardent beliefs of fellow pilgrims creating a the sense of purpose and atmosphere of faith
  • The act of participating in mass healing rituals and long-standing traditions promoting a feeling of spiritual closeness and community
  • The impressive and beautiful religious architecture that shows the importance and high status of the site and what has happened there

We have limited knowledge of how a psychological experience may influence recovery from most of the diseases involved in the Lourdes miracles, but it is anticipated that neurotransmitters would play a role. Some of the accounts from Lourdes and various other faith healings, suggest that people experience an influx of serotonin during the event. Happiness, warmth, relaxation, tingling sensations, feelings of love, intense experience of sounds and colours and feeling in-tune with your surroundings have all been recorded and are all symptoms associated with increased serotonin levels. Side note: Interestingly, many illicit drugs also produce similar symptoms via increased serotonin levels.

So what does this all mean?

Until medical science advances, the Lourdes miracles will remain a mystery. My suspicion is that as research into the placebo effect progresses, we will come to understand more about how these miracles took place. But, I do acknowledge that there may be something else at work – for some, that may be God, for others, it may simply be an unexplored area of science. Perhaps time will tell, perhaps it won’t.

Note: This was an unusual genre of article for this website, but one that I had wanted to explore for a long time. I studied both theology and neuroscience at degree level, but I am by no means an expert and I welcome the views of others, so please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below.

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