Would you take a "medication" knowing there was nothing in it? What do you think the odds are that said meds would help what ails you?
Science suggests they might be better than you think. The placebo effect has been demonstrated to various degrees in an array of studies on things like pain, heart failure, Parkinson's disease and depression. But what researchers are really studying when looking at placebos is the possibility that the mind can heal corporal ills.
Is your brain your doctor?
What the experts say
"In one study of hotel room attendants, the group taught to see their work as exercise ended up with a significant reduction in waist-to-hip ratio and lower blood pressure, in comparison to the control group. If we conceive of mind and body as one, it opens up a world of possibilities. We have findings on improving vision through the same means. There's a difference between things being uncontrollable and being indeterminate. That's why we've asked, ‘How do we improve hearing, vision through psychological means?' ‘How do we improve memory for old people?' When you ask yourself if you can do something, you see whether you've done it before, and if not you conclude you can't. I suggest people bypass that and ask themselves how they can."
ELLEN LANGER, professor of psychology, Harvard University, author, Mindful Health And The Power of Possibility, Cambridge, Massachusetts
"We had irritable bowel syndrome patients who were given either no treatment or a placebo. We gave placebo subjects a rationale for why we thought it might work, saying they might have a mind-body interaction that could make them feel better. We said it was important to take the placebos regularly as prescribed, and that it was okay for them to have doubts, but positive expectations would be helpful. We found significant differences between placebo subjects and those with no treatment. Our placebo was as effective as current IBS medications. The effect has to do with conscious and unconscious expectations in the context of going to the pharmacy, getting the drug, taking it - the whole ritual around prescribed treatment, paying attention, doing it every day. In a way, the pill is a transitional object, connecting people to their doctor and the instructions. It would be interesting to see whether cutting out the doctor and the pharmacist and simply buying placebos like Tic-Tacs would still work."
JOHN KELLEY, professor at Endicott College, instructor, Harvard Medical School, department of psychiatry, Cambridge
"We found changes in brain function in patients with depression who got better with an antidepressant, but what surprised us was that we also found changes in some patients taking the placebo. Some placebo patients showed significant improvement, but most didn't show any benefit. We published a follow-up study showing certain people are more genetically predisposed to be placebo responders. It's safe to say personality type, attitudes, optimism, expectations about the medication, and the strength of the relationship with the health care provider all combine to determine whether people get better with a placebo."
ANDREW F. LEUCHTER, professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences, Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, UCLA, Los Angeles
"People have been exploring intermixing placebos with drugs in treatment so that side effects can be reduced, but the point in placebo studies is to illustrate the principles by which the brain regulates itself and the body. When you go to cognitive therapy, practise cultivating an attitude of acceptance or practise mindful stress reduction, you're working with your mind. The placebo studies get at the mechanisms by which all of these interventions work. You can practise ways of working with your mind to tap into this potential without tricking yourself. One of them is developing habits. Our brains constantly interpret cues from the world around us [creating associations.] When we put ourselves in a situation, it has a pull on our minds to behave and perceive and act in a certain way."
TOR WAGER, professor of psychology and neuroscience, University of Colorado at Boulder
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