Is "tapping" a type of placebo?


I recently watched an interview in which Nick Ortner interviewed Dr. Lissa Rankin about mind-body effects in medicine. One of the modalities they discussed is called "tapping" - a way of alleviating stress and pain by tapping on parts of the body (a simplified description).

Ortner asked Dr. Rankin a question: Is tapping a type of placebo?

The question and answer were intriguing, so I offer my own thoughts here. First, some background.

Tapping is based on a mind-body effect. It is thought that tapping on certain areas of the body activates the flow of subtle energy in corresponding locations. The movement in that energy may then correspond to the release of emotions, stress, and tension in the mind, as well as pain and other physical symptoms in the body.

Whether or not a person believes in the existence of subtle energy or mind-body effects is less important at this stage. Let's assume it's possible for now, and we'll revisit this later in the conversation.

We know that the placebo effect is a type of mind-body effect. It is often called the effect of belief: If a person believes he will get better, he may get better irrespective of the particular method he chooses. This is classic mind-body medicine. 

If tapping and the placebo effect are both examples of mind-body effects, is tapping a placebo? To answer this question to our full satisfaction, we must take our understanding of placebo to the next level.

Ortner makes a very insightful comment about tapping at around the 27:35 mark of the interview. He says "...people want the real thing. They want it to be more than just 'this is my mind doing this.' " This is a profound comment - and so true. We often want to understand something even more than we want actual results. Let's unpack this some more.

What does it mean when we say "This is just my mind" ?

A couple simple observations:

  • Everything we know is known through our minds.
  • Without the mind, there is no experience of any thing (think about the blankness of sleep - no mind, no experience)

Given the above observations that most of us can appreciate, what, if anything, is not the mind? Indeed, even what we call our physical body is experienced only through our minds.

The next question is: To what extent does the mind play a role in how I perceive physical things such as my body and the things around me? We can answer this question by analyzing what happens when we dream. In my dream, I have a physical-seeming body, and am surrounded by a very real, physical-seeming world. But when I wake up, I see that the physical-seeming world was not physical at all. It wasn't even made up of tiny atoms. It was pure mind-stuff, thinner than air.

Similarly, your body and the objects around you are also mind-stuff. What we call the mind-body effect is really the mind-mind effect, because what we call the body is simply a variation in the appearance of mind. The mind is the body is the mind.

So what is the placebo effect? What is commonly called the placebo effect represents the very beginning of science's understanding of the relationship between mind and body. It is starting to understand the "link" between the two, which is the beginning of realizing that the two are not fundamentally different. When we understand and experience that, we will do things with our minds and bodies that were previously thought to be impossible. That effect will need a name - the placebo effect won't cut it.

Perhaps a good term would be the resonance effect. In chemistry, a resonance structure is one of many representations of the same molecule. In our world, each object is a resonance structure, or representation, of the same mind. The resonance effect would then be the effect of one aspect of mind on the other.

And now we can finally answer the question completely: Is the effectiveness of tapping a placebo effect? No. It's a resonance effect, as are all healing modalities. What makes tapping unique is that understanding its mechanism can help us further unlock the identity between mind and body.

Anoop Kumar, MD, MM is an emergency physician in the Washington, DC metro area. He is the author of Michelangelo's Medicine: How redefining the human body will transform health and healthcare.