Placebos, or the placebo effect, is a phenomenon where a fake treatment has real effects on someone. Essentially, it’s when someone is healed by a belief in their mind rather than by a medicinal remedy.
A placebo can effect anything that is originated in the brain, such as:
They can come in many different forms, and aren’t restricted to just medicines (pills etc.), but more on that in a bit.
The way in which placebos work isn’t fully understood, but possibly involves increases in feel-good neurotransmitters like dopamine, and increased activity in areas of the brain associated with moods and emotions. These chemical changes are brought on simply by a belief that originates in the mind.
At the end of the day, everything relating to the placebo effect originates in the head. So if that’s the case, can we use it to our advantage?
A study done in 2014 tested whether or not knowingly self-administering a placebo was effective in treating migraine pain. Participants were given, and told, that they would be taking a placebo pill. The pill labeled as a placebo was 50% as effective at reducing migraine pain as the real drug.
This effect spills over to some self-help methods. Though the health benefits are real, there may be some added psychological placebo boost from practices like eating healthy, exercising, meditating, and quality social time, according to Ted J. Kaptchuk.
An interesting study done by Luana Colloca found that participants could reduce the pain experienced simply by being exposed to a certain visual. In the study, she hooked people up to a machine that either strongly or mildly shocked their feet. While being shocked, she would simultaneously show either a red light for strong shocks, or a green light for mild shocks. What she found was that participants eventually got conditioned to respond to the green light with less pain, even if they received the strong shock.
Another study found that when medication is ‘covertly’ administered (meaning administered without the patients knowledge), it is only half as effective as when the patient is aware they are receiving it.
Similarly, this study found that 74% of patients who received a placebo surgery (where doctors made incisions but didn’t actually do anything) saw improvements in their conditions.
This really highlights how strong the mind actually is. It all comes down to the power of the mind and the importance of really putting in the effort to harness its strength and potential. Awareness is the first step, followed by putting in the work – meditate, exercise, eat right, get uncomfortable.