So what is going on? Doctors have known about the placebo effect for decades, and result[s] seem to show that the Placebo Effect is somehow biochemical. But apart from that, we simply don’t know.
– Michael Brooks
It was a physician, T. C. Graves who first coined the term ‘placebo’ when an essay of his appeared in the medical journal The Lancet in 1920. The placebo ‘drug’ is nothing more than a bland compound with no medicinal or curative properties. Strikingly, it works just like a drug that does have them. (This, of course, has massive implications.) The patient is being given a sweet, basically, and yet they recover. One ‘placebo effect’ case involved treatment on a painful shoulder when a male patient attended a clinic for electric diathermy treatment (basically, heat therapy). He was shown to the couch and the diathermy unit was applied, then left alone as the nurse in charge fulfilled other duties. When she returned, she asked how the treatment had gone, and the man reported his shoulder felt ten times better. It was only after the patient had gone that the nurse realised something extraordinary: though he’d gained genuine relief, the diathermy machine hadn’t been connected to the mains. The nurse remembered unplugging it that morning and it had been left that way! Medical experts would at once realise this cure as the Placebo Effect.
Amazingly, the placebo effect works in brain surgery. On the Natural News website, Mike Adams reports on an experiment involving sufferers of the degenerative disease, Parkinson’s. Some patients had neurons (nerve cells) introduced into their brains to effect a cure. However, fifty percent of patients were told that the transplant been carried out when, in fact, it hadn’t. As Adams said, even patients who received the sham operation showed significant improvements in brain and body function a full twelve months later. This is because the Placebo effect had kicked in.
However, the sceptics don’t like it; such things are just not possible. Some doctors, for instance, receive a lot of criticism, as when J. Bruce Moseley performed knee surgery on ten patients, with only two getting genuine treatment. (The other eight merely had an incision made before Moseley inserted stitches.) Six months later, all ten patients were ‘healed’. The conclusion seems obvious – the eight who had ‘fake surgery’ got better due to the placebo effect. Sceptics argue that perhaps the eight would have healed in time, anyway, or didn’t need surgery in the first place.1
Dr. John C. Bailar III has remarked that those ‘who claim there are placebo effects are going to have to show it.’ So how about the following examples: firstly, in a controlled experiment, several patients needing pain relief were divided into three groups and administered the pain-killer Buprenorphine, on request, over three days. They were also given an infusion of saline (saltwater) solution. Group one were told nothing about the saline; group two were told it was either an analgesic (pain killer) or a placebo, and group three were told it was a powerful pain reliever. The test would be to see which set of patients requested the pain-killer most often. The results speak for themselves: after three days group one received 11.55 mg of Buprenorphine, group two even less, with 9.15 mg. However, group three (who had been told the saline infusion was really a painkiller) had requested only 7.65 mg. As the website Skeptic’s Dictionary comments, those who believed the infusion held a strong pain-killer ‘required 34% less of the [real] analgesic’ than those who were told nothing.
The Skeptic’s Dictionary (whose solemn task is to challenge all manner of unfounded beliefs) stressed that what patients were told about the saline ‘would lead to different expectations. Belief, motivation, and expectation are essential to the placebo effect.’ If this is supposed to be criticism of placebos it fails miserably; it sounds more like a ringing endorsement. If belief and expectation is essential for placebos to work, this still says nothing about the ‘how’. But we do know they motivate brain processes involved in pain relief. One of these entails endorphins – hormones within the brain which activate the body’s opiate receptors that kill pain. In one experiment:
‘Subjects were injected in the jaw with a saltwater solution to induce pain. Then they were told they would receive a pain reliever, which was actually a placebo, while their brains were scanned. The scans showed that endorphin levels rose when the idea of the pain reliever was introduced.’2
Again, pain relief wasn’t coming from a ‘real’ drug, but the brain’s very own pain relieving ‘drug’. But it had been kick started by the patient’s own belief. Another example of how expectation wields a powerful influence comes from Judith Turner, a Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioural Sciences at the University of Washington. (This might come under the heading of the ‘Nocebo effect’ – where we basically respond to negative ideas and beliefs.)
In 2008, a male patient admitted to ER reported how he’d swallowed a full bottle of antidepressant pills. Believing himself near to death he was ‘drowsy and lethargic, pale’ with ‘very low blood pressure [and] rapid breathing.’3 It transpired that the pills were part of a recent clinical trial from a group labelled ‘placebo’, and only his expectation and belief could be causing these symptoms. Sure enough, within fifteen minutes of being told he’d taken nothing hazardous, his lethargy vanished, and his pulse and blood pressure returned to normal.
Even drugs with real medicinal properties may require the placebo effect. Pain-killers work less effectively when a person is unaware they contain active ingredients – when it’s known there’s a real drug in there, they work much better! But it seems the very act of taking something engages placebo power, even if it’s only a symbolic gesture. In a 2010 study at Harvard Medical School, patients with irritable bowel syndrome found their complaint improved, even though they knew beforehand they were swallowing a ‘useless’ placebo. These people, it should be noted received more benefit than those who took no pills at all!
As Emile Coué knew, the patient’s ability to get better depends upon what they believe to be true. The Subconscious mind acts like a ‘power behind the throne’ and Dr. Bruce Lipton has mentioned those who can walk over hot coals without suffering burns, and charismatic Christians in America’s Deep South who have drunk fatal doses of poison and lived – because of their faith. As Fabrizio Benedetti of the University of Turin says, the connection between ‘expectation and therapeutic outcome’ is a great model for understanding the ‘mind-body interaction.’ One commentator wrote in 1965 that:
‘Research on the placebo effect shows remarkable results … They reduced the pain in patients after major surgery. They brought about symptomatic relief in rheumatoid and degenerative arthritis… It was found that the conditions under which [it] was administered … were important; a white coat – or no coat – on the doctor would have a bearing … Something was definitely at work, something beyond the patient’s imagination … If the mechanism of the placebo effect could be understood, there would be no need of anything else, not really. Any man could be cured of anything so long as he was administered something under the proper circumstances.’4
As we say, it’s the thought that counts. The faith invested in the authority of your doctor is all: ‘take this and you’ll be better in a few days’ are magic words indeed! It was just the same in the ancient world. The first century Roman writer, Pliny the Elder, raised the subject of ‘magic words’ in his monumental Natural History:
‘In reference to the remedies derived from man, there arises first of all one question, of the greatest importance and always attended with the same uncertainty, whether words, charms, and incantations, are of any efficacy or not? For if such is the case, it will be only proper to ascribe this efficacy to man himself …’ 5
Pliny just may as well have been describing the Placebo effect. The earlier (far superior) Greek thinker and mystic, Plato, wrote that,
‘all good and evil, whether in the body or in human nature, originates … in the soul, and overflows from thence, as if from the head into the eyes. And therefore if the head and body are to be well, you must begin by curing the soul; that is the first thing. And the cure, my dear youth, has to be effected by the use of certain charms, and these charms are fair words; and by them temperance is implanted in the soul, and where temperance is, there health is speedily imparted, not only to the head, but to the whole body.’ 6
These ‘fair words’ are what we would now call affirmations or autosuggestions, which likewise act as kind of placebo on our Subconscious. The ‘miracle cures’ at Lourdes are also another example of the ‘placebo effect’. Like the power we invest in the healing skills of physicians, faith in God works to engage the ‘miraculous’ self-healing properties of the Subconscious Mind. Whether the environment is a doctor’s surgery in your town or a sanctified cave in France, the phenomenon is psychosomatic (mind-over-matter). As we’ve seen, the Christian Bible is full of references to Positive Thinking. Indeed, it seemed to know about the Placebo Effect long before modern medicine started noticing it. In the gospel tales, a woman in Jesus’ presence merely touched his robe and was cured of a twelve year affliction. He looked upon her and said: ‘Daughter, thy faith hath made thee whole.’7
2. Solan, Matthew, ‘Peering Into Our Potential: How Neuroscience Is Mapping New Paths To Healthy Living’, Shift: At The Frontiers Of Consciousness (Sep.- Nov. 2007).
3. Quoted in The Daily, February 7, 2008.
4. Bonewitz, Real Magic.
5. Pliny, Nat Hist. Book 28.
6. Charmides, Or Temperance, Plato (ca. 428- ca.348 BC) translated by Jowett, Benjamin (1817-93) Italics added.
7. Mk. 5:34.