A “placebo” is generally thought of as a pill or other
medical intervention that has no known curative effects. Exactly how it
works remains a mystery. But over 50 years of research has shown that
placebos can reduce or eliminate symptoms of:
and even cancer
. . . just to name a few.
We know that placebos work, in part, subconsciously, because they are effective even in animals.
However, in humans, researchers believe that a large part of the placebo effect is due to our conscious expectations. If a doctor you respect examines you, then confidently proclaims, “You’re in excellent health. It’s just a passing thing – your pain will be gone in a few days,” you’d probably walk away smiling.
Whether he (or she) realized it or not, your doctor was making use of two powerful aspects of the placebo effect – the power of suggestion and the power of belief. S/he planted the suggestion that you’d feel better soon, and strengthened your belief in your body’s health and ability to heal. As we’ll see, it’s possible to consciously harness these powers of suggestion and belief to bring about some rather dramatic changes in your health and overall well-being.
Many people think that because the placebo effect is a
function of the mind, it’s a ‘fake’ treatment. Sp say someone had been given a
pill and then their pain went away. If afterwards they were informed that the pill had
“only” been a placebo, they might wonder whether the pain had ever been real, or whether it had just been “just in their head.”
But researchers who study the placebo effect know that the effects of the placebo are quite real. If a cancer patient got relief from severe pain after using a placebo, you might be tempted to think the pain had just been “in her head.” Since there’s no objective way to measure pain, it would be hard to disprove that idea. But it turns out the patient also showed measurable changes in her blood pressure, heart rate, respiration, and pupil size, along with other physical changes.
In experiment after experiment, the placebo effect has been shown to bring about real physical changes of many kinds. Here are just a few examples:
These are all changes in the direction of greater healing. But the power of belief and expectation to physically change our body works in both directions. For example, subjects who were exposed to fake poison ivy, believing it to be real, developed real rashes.
In 1999, Peptide Therapeutics, a British
bio-tech company, produced a new allergy vaccine. Initial trials were
conducted on patients suffering from food allergies. The company was
delighted to announce that after receiving the vaccine, 75 percent of
subjects were able to eat foods they had not been able to tolerate
previously. However, the company’s mood changed (and the price of their
stock dropped considerably) after the data on the placebo group came
in. Can you guess what percentage of subjects in the placebo group
improved? Also 75 percent!
In another instance of disappointed pharmaceutical researchers, Genentech was excited to introduce its new, genetically-engineered heart drug, VEGF. Studies were conducted to measure improvements in the length of time patients would be able to walk on a treadmill after taking different dosages of the medication. Results showed that patients who received low doses of VEGF were able to walk 26 seconds longer, and patients with high doses were able to walk 32 seconds longer. But patients who received a placebo were able to walk 42 seconds longer on the treadmill.
In a study of anti-depressants, the famous drug Zoloft actually did worse than the placebo in relieving depression.
It looks like the placebo effect may actually be getting stronger over
time. Ironically, this may be due, in large part, to the massive
advertising efforts of pharmaceutical companies that have succeeded in
convincing people of the power of medications to cure their ills. Since
belief and expectation play such a large role in the effectiveness of
placebos, the more we believe in the power of pills, and the more we
expect them to work, the more powerful a placebo pill will be.
However, not all placebo pills are created equal. Researchers have found that the effectiveness of a placebo pill has a lot to do with its shape and color – which means that, whether we realize it or not, when it comes to pills, we have more faith in some shapes and colors than others. The least effective placebo is your ordinary round white tablet. Similar white pills, but with angled edges, have a stronger placebo effect. The effect is even more powerful with a colored tablet and more powerful still with capsules of colored beads. Injections top them all.
One of the more creative uses of placebo we’ve heard is placebo expert Patrick Wall’s example of “a doctor who handled the placebo tablets with forceps, assuring the patient that they were too powerful to be touched by hand.”
So if the power behind the placebo is our beliefs and expectations, why bother with fake pills, injections or painted dyes? Why not try a dose of belief and expectation straight up?
Langer conducted a number of intriguing experiments to test her theory.
In one of her most well-known experiments, Langer set out to show that
the negative mindset of our culture with regard to aging has an impact
on the physical changes we experience as we age. (This experiment has
gotten such widespread attention that it’s being made into a movie called Counterclockwise.)
Here’s the experiment:
Langer concluded that our rigid mindset about what happens to us when we age might be far more responsible for our declining mental and physical health than we think. Looking back on the experiment many years later, she writes in her book, Counter Clockwise:
This study shaped not only my view of aging, but also my view of limits in a more general way for the next few decades. Over time I have come to believe less and less that biology is destiny. It is not primarily our physical selves that limit us but rather our mindset about our physical limits.