We all know the placebo effect, when someone tells you something is a drug, but it’s actually not, but you end up feeling the effects of the drug anyway. As it turns out, scientists and doctors understand very little about the placebo effect, which is funny when you learn that they’ve been commonly prescribed since the late 1700s. That’s right, since the 1700s doctors have been all out of ideas and that’s when they start handing out placebos.
Why Placebo Effect is Weird
What’s weird about placebos is that they don’t behave the same way for everyone and there are ways to make sure they don’t work. Let’s get into the details.
While the placebo effect is weird, it seems most people just accept it as a brute fact. We use placebos all the time in non-medical contexts, like the placebo that our 3-inch seatbelts on our airline seats will prevent us from being injured in the event of a dive from 30,000 feet. When we accept placebos like that it’s easy to accept the idea that you could trick someone into feeling that a sugar pill had the same effect as a Tylenol.
But medical placebos are beyond psychological, they are psychological and physical. They are dependent on our biochemistry, and our biology is what makes us feel what we feel, right? How can a sugar pill actually make me feel less pain?
Pain is the most reliable symptom a placebo can fix. An Italian professor, Fabrizio Benedetti, has done multiple studies on the placebo effect. He did an experiment where he would give subjects morphine and then induce pain in them. For several days this would continue as an exercise, but at some point instead of morphine they would receive an inert saline solution.
None of the subjects felt an increase in pain. But that isn’t the weird part, that’s the placebo effect we already know. The weird part is that after using the saline solution for days, some subjects were switched to naloxone, which blocks the effect of morphine.
What happened? They felt a sharp increase in pain. Why did they start feeling pain only after this anti-morphine drug was used, even though they hadn’t been on morphine for days? This shows that the placebo effect has some limits, but we still don’t know exactly what they are.
The Placebo Effect Can Be Done Naturally
The placebo effect doesn’t always involve being in a hospital and taking medicine. In fact, it doesn’t need to involve any drugs at all. In another experiment, Benedetti had two groups of hikers who were about to go on a high-altitude hike in the Italian Alps. One was a control, and the other was told beforehand that they may experience headaches because of the high-altitude.
What happened? The group told the altitude may give them headaches experienced more headaches than the control group. Now, you may say that’s just a subjective, psychological thing. Well, not exactly. Further study on this group found that the cyclooxygenase-prostaglandin pathway was enhanced.
What does that mean? I have no idea, but the point is that the mere power of suggesting one may experience an effect means that the body will physically change and react as if it really is experiencing an effect.
Mind Over Matter
The placebo effect is about the power of the mind over the body. When you think of the placebo effect, it isn’t far fetched to understand that ancient people, and even not-so ancient people, probably benefited greatly from the placebo effect.
Think about how commonplace bloodletting and leeching was. People claimed they felt great and that they were cured, etc, and nobody batted an eye. Maybe, then, religious ceremonies and spiritual rituals can have an actual physical effect on your body.
Perhaps the magic in a tarot card reading is real in that sense because the message you receive will manifest itself in your body physically. Spiritual healing is valid if you believe in it, to a limit. Allowing your mind to believe it can heal your body will lead to it actually doing it, and we know that’s true because of the placebo effect.
So next time someone offers to help you out, or gives you an old folk home remedy for an ailment, take the advice. You’re more likely than not to let the placebo effect take over and heal your body. It doesn’t make any sense. Scientists don’t get it, doctors don’t get it, and nobody else seems to get it either.