Have you ever wondered how your mind can influence your body? How a sugar pill can make you feel better, even when you know it’s not a real medicine? How a positive attitude can help you cope with pain, stress, and illness? If so, you are not alone. Many people are fascinated by the phenomenon of the placebo effect, which is the ability of our expectations to produce real physical and mental changes.
The placebo effect is more than positive thinking — believing a treatment or procedure will work. It’s about creating a stronger connection between the brain and body and how they work together, according to Dr. Josephine Briggs, a former director of the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health at the National Institutes of Health.
The placebo effect can work even when people know they are taking a placebo, as long as they are told that the placebo has some beneficial effects, according to Dr. Ted Kaptchuk, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and one of the leading researchers on placebo effects. He conducted a study in 2010 that showed that patients with irritable bowel syndrome who knowingly received a placebo pill reported twice as much symptom relief as those who received no treatment.
The placebo effect can be influenced by various factors, such as the color, shape, and size of the pills, the words and gestures of the doctor, and the social and cultural context. For example, red pills tend to have more stimulating effects than blue pills, larger pills tend to have stronger effects than smaller pills, and injections tend to have more powerful effects than pills. The way the doctor communicates with the patient can also make a difference. A warm, empathetic, and confident doctor can enhance the placebo effect, while a cold, distant, and doubtful doctor can diminish it.
The placebo effect can be explained by several mechanisms, such as conscious expectations, subconscious conditioning, endorphin release, and brain network modulation. Conscious expectations are the beliefs that we have about the outcome of a treatment or intervention. They can influence our perception of pain, mood, and well-being. Subconscious conditioning is the process of learning associations between stimuli and responses. It can trigger physiological reactions that mimic the effects of drugs or therapies. Endorphin release is the production of natural painkillers in the brain that can reduce pain and increase pleasure. Brain network modulation is the alteration of brain activity in specific regions that are involved in various functions, such as pain processing, emotion regulation, and cognitive control.
The placebo effect is not just about fooling yourself or tricking your brain into producing more endorphins. It is also about changing your brain at a deeper level, according to Dr. Fabrizio Benedetti, a professor of physiology and neuroscience at the University of Turin in Italy and one of the world’s leading experts on placebo effects. He has shown that placebos can modulate the activity of neurons and neurotransmitters in the brain, affecting not only subjective feelings but also objective measures of brain function.
The placebo effect can be used ethically and effectively in clinical practice and everyday life, as long as it is given with honesty and compassion. Placebos may make you feel better, but they will not cure you. They have been shown to be most effective for conditions like pain management, stress-related insomnia, and cancer treatment side effects like fatigue and nausea. They can also enhance creativity, performance, and well-being by boosting confidence, motivation, and positive emotions. You can use the placebo effect to your advantage by harnessing the power of positive expectations, self-talk, imagery, and rituals. These techniques can help you improve your health and happiness without any harmful side effects.
The mind can be a powerful healer. It can affect how we feel, how we act and how we cope with pain. But it can also be a source of illness, when our beliefs and expectations clash with reality. The key is to find a balance between optimism and realism, between hope and evidence. The placebo effect is not a magic bullet or a miracle cure. It is a natural phenomenon that reveals the amazing potential of our mind-body connection.
– A placebo can work even when you know it’s a placebo, Harvard Health Publishing, July 7, 2016
– The Power of Placebo: How Our Brains Can Heal Our Minds and Bodies, Scientific American, November 11, 2016
– How to Use the “Placebo Effect” to Your Advantage, Prevention, September 17, 2019