Psychology and Biblical Studies


SBL Annual Meeting Papers, November 2010

For review only; do not distribute

  pdf version

Performing the Psalms of Lament: Placebo or Healing?

Heather A. McKay
Edge Hill University


Placebos are items to be swallowed, usually simple substances—such as sugar and chalk—dressed up to look like important tablets or elixirs such that a person might expect them to contain a substance that would bring about a positive change in a physical or psychological condition. Apparently, red coloured tablets are far more effective than yellow ones in clinical trials!

The mysterious effectiveness of placebos has remained a medical curiosity for many years and has often been set aside or ignored because there was no mental space in which to understand that effect within the dominant Cartesian medical understanding that was, and is, prevalent in Western cultures. There—or, rather—here, ‘disease’ is considered to be a damage to, or malfunction of, the human body with—usually—an identifiable cause such that the damage could be repaired or the cause removed or inhibited and the ‘patient’ be ‘cured’ (Pilch, 2008).

- We get a broken bone:

- we get it correctly aligned

- we immobilise it

- we rest it and

- it mends.

Fair enough: barbers and army surgeons have been doing that for centuries.


Our understanding of the healing process and of the intervention of doctors/healers is instrumental in nature; we see the results of the interventions and believe in their efficacy. If something holds up our cure we look for the explanation in similar terms; we do not expect it to be the work of a demon. Our medical understanding is strongly rationalist.


Input from Supportive Others

In other cultures, past and present, ‘disease’ has not necessarily been so understood. Of course, there were cuts and broken limbs that would be treated much as above, but there were more—or rather other—aspects of their understanding of what was happening. There, persons suffered ‘illness’ which affected not only the individual, but also their family and social standing. Some activity or capacity that that person contributed to the family, clan or community had been interrupted in some ways. The sick person was debilitated, but everyone involved with them was also suffering loss in some way. Whether the person were a judge, a housekeeper, farmer, soldier, mother, weaver—whatever—their incapacity affected the smooth and successful running, perhaps even survival of the community. So, it mattered to those communities that such ‘sick’ persons should be ‘healed’. (Pilch, 2008) Their healing was a communal issue. The attitudes and responses of everyone in contact with sick people mattered to them and affected their recovery.

Touches, Hugs and Good Wishes

Perhaps as a result of this wider knowledge and understanding of other perspectives on health and illness from past cultures and cultures elsewhere in the world today, more of us ‘Westerners’ have, in recent times, developed a wider view of healing. And as part of this broadening of understanding there has slowly come into being a richer appreciation of complementary methods of medicine. We can all begin to accept the beneficial effects of massage with aromatherapy oils and of acupuncture even if they are ‘not for us’ or if we cannot imagine how they ‘work’. And we all, more or less, believe in sending Get Well cards and spend time trying to choose one with the ‘right words’ on it!

The same broadening is happening to our curiosity about placebos. We would all like to get better merely by taking a red pill made of sugar and chalk which could not harm us and certainly would not cost very much, but we want to be sure it will help us and we want to know how. One new route of understanding is to see the placebo as either activating the individual’s power of self-healing or as a way of decreasing whatever stress, or anxiety was currently inhibiting that power, and this theory has become more commonly accepted. We could believe in that for we know from simple examples like a cheering visit from a friend when we are ill at home or in hospital, just how vital that friendly input is to our wellbeing. Health authorities did, after all, bring in Visiting Hours into Nightingale hospital wards because of the benefits friendly visitors brought. In some countries all the family and their cooking pots go to hospital with the sick person and the support group remains there with them for the duration.

Important Rituals

In all forms of healing intervention, however, whether by surgery, drugs, touch, application of lotions, incantations or ‘danced psychodramas’ (Lewis, 1971), a definite input from sort of ritual may be observed. There is almost always some movement to a different venue from that of the daily life of the person, a shrine or clinic, or perhaps a particular place is cleaned and decorated in a particular way, with garlands or health posters, to show that something unusual is happening there. Perhaps there are special roles for people to play, or special garments to wear, feathered cloaks and shell necklaces or white coats and stethoscopes, or special movements to make, or words to say, or music, or singing or dancing. There may even be special wounding, scarifying, or bloodletting. We can often expect that at the doctor’s surgery or in a hospital clinic! There may be special drinks or medicines to swallow or lotions to rub on, or objects to wear, perhaps an amulet or a bandage. But there will be a clear set of events and objects used that is different from normal, everyday life.

Focus of Attention

Another key feature of healing and healing ceremonies is the attention given to the suffering person. There will be someone to listen to their account of how they feel and to ask about it, perhaps reframing the account or adding new vocabulary, drawing out a fuller description and so on. There will be concern for the person’s comfort during this time and particular focus on the person. The healer, certainly, will look at the subject, and perhaps others, even many others, will also look at the person. They will be ‘the centre of attention’ for some time in some place before some sort of audience or practitioners. In a modern operating theatre there will be a busy team all focussed on and attending to the patient under surgery.

However, the focus here on the Psalms of Lament eliminates many of the features listed above. In using the psalms the worshipper encounters perhaps only words, but maybe says them in particular tones and, perhaps, with some slight movements. There may possibly be other persons present when the devotee prays the psalm, which could be silently or aloud, but they may be alone.


Considering the means by which words could affect a person in such a way as to heal them, it is obvious that the words would have to be heard by the person or read and thus taken into the person’s memory—whether accurately or not. Thus a deaf person could not benefit from spoken words nor an illiterate person from written ones. Furthermore, those words would have to originate somewhere outside of ourselves and we have to take them in whether by accident in a casual way of noticing or perhaps we sought them out. One way or another the words must penetrate our consciousness and remain there within our minds.

In our minds we go over words we have said and heard in our self-talk. That inward talk is the words by which we explain our lives to ourselves and the words in which we prepare our own story of our lives – the story in which we are the wise and sensible star; the story in which blunders and faults belong to others; we were always doing our best and making things go well for others whenever we could. We are always the heroes in our own stories whether at our zenith or fallen upon hard times.

But how do all these special words have their effect on us? They enter our ears as sound waves in the air; there they are turned into electrical patterns by our ears. These are then interpreted and some of them are stored in our brains/minds for a very long time and remembered and revisited. But how do they change us? To answer that we need to look at the human brain.

Pituitary and Hypothalamus

The largest part of the brain is the cerebrum, where we think, plan things, do things, feel and remember with, the ‘little grey cells’ as Agatha Christie’s detective, Hercule Poirot, would say.

Lower down, at the back of your head is the cerebellum where you store the memories and methods of how to do all the things that were difficult to learn to do to begin with but that you can now do without thinking about them at all: getting dressed, typing, riding a bike, swimming, climbing stairs, driving a car, and so on.

In front of that, at the top of your spinal cord is the brain stem which controls all those activities that your body still does when you are asleep, under anaesthetic or knocked out cold: heart beat, breathing, digesting food, fighting infections, etc.

In between are the parts that control breathing which is under a mix of conscious and unconscious control. You can interrupt your breathing to eat, drink, sing, speak, laugh, sneeze, but it will reassert itself when necessary.

Right in the centre is your hypothalamus where what you think has the power to alter how you feel and the tenor of your thoughts as well by subtly regulating your hormone levels and the inteplay of the hormones in your body so that you feel physically—as well as emotionally—quite different.

Still, what kind of words would be able to heal a person? Would they be words like the words of counselling or psychotherapy? Or the words of old proverbs or venerated texts? Whatever their source or ‘authority’ they would ultimately have to hold meaning for the hearer and be retained and revisited over and over again if they were to be part of a person’s own inner healing resources.

The Role of the Powerful Listener and Helper

Yet another feature that many healing rituals and ceremonies have in common is the presence of a powerful and focussed leader who gives their undivided attention to the problem of the sufferer. In everyday life we do not regard our barbers or hairdressers like that; their conversation is about other things. So also with our dentists; in fact there our conversation is restricted to muffled squawks.

But we certainly expect our midwife or hospital consultant or emergency paramedic to listen to us and to give us their full attention and to apply all their knowledge, experience, skills, medicines and appliances to bring us relief. The same is true of the members of self-help groups; all the attendees are entitled to the best efforts the others can offer to them.

So what do we have in the psalms of lament to match this? We have the person’s (and the psalmist’s) construction of God, either as addressee or as described actor in the person’s past, present and future life, cast for them in well-crafted sequences of words and phrases by the Psalmist. Often these words and phrases resonate with and remind the worshipper of other religious occasions and emotions; a whole panoply of remembered life experiences both bad and good are conjured up.

The Catharsis of Tragedies

Another possible source of understanding for this process is to look at cathartic effect of going to a performance of a tragic opera or drama. Catharsis is the cleansing or, rather, purging of the emotions of the characters in the plot and the audience. The purging is achieved by re-enacting or immersing oneself in the re-enactment and, so, re-experiencing—or vicariously experiencing—the problems, pains, sorrows and successes of the characters performed. Their triumphs and tragedies, sorrows and joys resonate through the minds, and hence, bodies of the audience.

To my mind the pattern of tragedy offers a more subtle take on the operation of the psalms of lament than looking at—say—NLP or Displacement Activities or Cognitive Dissonance Reduction, for all of these take the person away from the bad experiences or deny their possiblility or importance, whereas Catharsis plunges the person anew into the full force of the unpleasantness they know.

The psalmist goes through the harrowing list of troubles he endures, describes God’s saving actions towards the oppressed and knows that God is powerful enough to set things right. He ends on a high note of confidence. In following the sequence of the psalmist’s words at a measure dpace, the worshippers re-experience through those words their own horrors and come out of them again into a more confident frame of mind.


This paper has tried to discover whether the very repetition of a psalm of lament can generate the mental manoeuvres and cerebral events outlined above for other forms of healing through words and whether the words of the psalms can produce such benefits by means of similar outcomes within the performer’s own mind and consciousness.

It has seemed to me that the performance of a tragedy comes closest to being a model for the operation of the psalm in the worshipper’s mind. Although, not quite. For at the end of a tragedy, there is often a mopping up exercise with removal of the dead bodies and a calm, orderly return to normal life almost as if nothing untoward has happened. And the audience leave the theatre in much the same mode; the bad things in their lives are nothing untoward after all. The psalm gives the sorrows a larger status as would a sympathtic or empathetic listener.

However, others, e.g. the playwright Bertolt Brecht, see the cathartic reworking of the emotions through dramatic performances as a neat way to sidestep life’s problems by allowing the audience to vicariously ‘let off emotional steam’. This release would then alter their current state of mind and stifle their desire for involvement in social or political action that, perhaps, should to be taken.

If we can comprehend this view and agree that catharsis can work this way then we could agree that processing oneself through the psalm could have a similar effect.  One’s emotions would be given voice, they would be ‘heard’ they would be given attention and the believing worshipper would sense they had received support from their Lord. They would have renewed belief that their sorrows were not merited and that they would be sustained to survive them. But whether anything in the external world had changed would be another matter.

So, back to placebos. The persons who prayed would be healed, not cured. Their circumstances would not change but their perception of them would. This is what many would say of placebos. But if placebos release a surge of inner resources and confidence in a person—as they appear to do—what would be so wrong about that?