The Placebo Effect: Real or Imaginary?

By Nanette Littlestone

Most of us have heard of the “placebo effect,” something that has no biological consequence and yet somehow it makes you well or unwell. Think of the times you skinned your knee and your mommy kissed it and made it all better. Or snake oil medicine men of the past who pushed their secret concoctions that relied heavily on mind over matter. Or faith healings that combine the power of mind, body, and spirit to induce instantaneous health.

But the placebo effect isn’t all mystery and magic; there’s a lot more to it.

The term placebo (I shall please) came about in the 18th century through Alexander Sutherland, an English physician who wanted to keep up with his patient’s expectations and demands. He and other doctors resorted to simple, powerless medications like milk sugar or bread pills.

Current day Stanford psychology professor Alia Crum defines it this way: “The placebo effect isn’t some mysterious response to a sugar pill. It is the robust and measurable effect of three components: the body’s natural ability to heal, the patient mindset, and the social context. When we start to see the placebo effect for what it really is, we can stop discounting it as medically superfluous and can work to deliberately harness its underlying components to improve health care.”

Numerous studies have shown that social influence affects people’s thoughts and feelings about a product. We’re constantly subjected to advertising that promises that certain products outperform others. Social media bombards us with people’s opinions every minute of the day. Songs on the radio teach us about relationships in a thousand different ways. And we pay attention. We listen, we absorb, and we integrate because we trust the spokespeople. They’re our friends, our teachers, our authority figures.

Professor Crum takes it one step further. Her studies agree with the impact of social influence on people’s thoughts and feelings. But they’ve also discovered that it affects physiological reactions. It’s not just in your head, which is what most people believe. It’s in your body.

In a study involving a supposedly caffeinated water product, participants reacted with a rise in blood pressure. But when a tested spectator commented that he didn’t feel a change, participants’ levels decreased. [FYI, the study group drank regular spring water.]

The placebo effect triggers distinct areas in the brain. Studies have identified the frontal cortices (the higher functioning areas of the brain) and the brainstem (which controls unconscious processes like breathing). When pain levels are brought into account, our brains release endorphins to help reduce or alleviate that pain. Interestingly, Alzheimer’s patients don’t register the placebo effect because of the degeneration of the frontal cortex.

It doesn’t matter whether or not you’re aware of the placebo. Study participants who were told in detail about the placebo still experienced significant relief. But placebos don’t work on everything. They don’t do well with reducing fevers or shrinking tumors. They are good with chronic pain, anxiety, depression, irritable bowel, autoimmune deficiencies, and Parkinson’s disease.

Biologist Eric Vance explains that Parkinson’s results from a deficiency of dopamine and dopamine is very responsive to our expectations. “Expectation drives placebos,” Vance says. “And dopamine is a chemical that’s very responsive to our expectations. Parkinson’s happens to be a deficiency in the very chemical that’s very important in placebo effects and rewards.”

Expectations color our health choices and those choices don’t even have to be conscious. We’re taught to believe that if one is good, two is better, so why take one pill when you can take two? Expensive usually means higher quality, so a brand name drug is better than a generic one. And so forth. You may not have proof that these things are true, but you believe them to be—the placebo effect at work.

When we blend our imagination (beliefs) and expectations (desires) with the biochemistry of the brain, amazing things can result. “We know that psychological and social forces are at work in health in healing, for better or for worse,” Crum says. “It is time we start taking these forces more seriously in both the science and practice of medicine.” Imagine what could happen when the health care industry unites in a conscious effort.

Will you take a placebo to get better? I will!

Nanette Littlestone’s mission is to help authors write from the heart and inspire others. A best-selling author, editor, writing coach, and publisher, she has worked with notable spiritual leaders, including David Ault and Jane Beach, and is the author of F.A.I.T.H. – Finding Answers in the Heart and The Sacred Flame.