Is the Placebo Effect the Triumph of Mind, or Not?

You don’t know the answer? I don’t know either, but the placebo definitely seems to work. The Placebo Effect is a phenomenon that is many decades old. Sadly, it has also been frequently abused by many people, from charlatans to health care professionals. I like to look at this from an alternative medicine perspective: as long as the treatment is effective, who cares if it is a placebo?

If you don’t remember what a placebo effect actually is, I’ll remind you. Simply put, a placebo effect is the term that describes the therapeutic and healing effects of inert medicines -“drugs” that have no active chemical substances. A placebo effect is healing based solely on the power of suggestion, not on the action of an active chemical substance. A placebo, sometimes called a “sugar pill”, is made to look like a “real drug” and provokes therapeutic effects when administered, despite its lack of any type of active substance.

But, please, don’t fool yourself. It’s not enough to take a “sugar pill” and expect a placebo effect. No, you also need the suggestion, from an authority figure, that the pill will aid in healing. Someone who can make you believes in it. The important point is not the pill; it is the suggestions and expectations. You need to trust in the authority first, and then to accept that “the pill” will help you. Belief, motivation, and expectation are essential to the placebo effect.

What is the belief? The belief is that you have the ability to make something happen. This belief in one’s competence for recovery is a very strong predictor for recovering from any disease. There is a popular saying that the efficacy of the treatment depends, not so much on the physician’s expertise, but rather on the physician’s altruism and compassion. The placebo effect plays a role in the compassion, not in the expertise.

What does placebo stand for, anyway? Interestingly, it stands for the Latin phrase: “I will please”. One explanation says that everything started when someone came for a treatment which did not exist, but the doctor wanted to please the patient. So he gave the patient something that he knew was ineffective, but claimed that it was effective in treatment. Obviously, this doctor was someone very well aware of the mind /body connection and the effects of the positive thinking. The doctor knew: I need to convince my patient of the therapy’s effectiveness. I need to play with the patient’s mental state and his or her ability to get well. He knew that the patient would only “feel better” but would not be healthier.

The triumph of mind and belief over body? Yes, and scientists are aware of the power of mind over body. If patients believe in a treatment, they can improve their medical condition. What science says is: beliefs, suggestibility and hopes about treatment may play on biochemistry of our bodies. We know that thoughts can affect brain neurochemistry, and that the human neurochemical system is affected by other biochemical systems (hormonal/immune). We are our thoughts. What we need to learn from all these explanations is: sensory experience and thoughts can affect neurochemistry. Positive thinking can elicit real neurochemical responses in the body.

The next time you have a health issue; remember that your hopeful attitude and beliefs may be very important to your recovery from injury or illness. Optimism, positive thinking, a hopeful attitude and unconditional belief, are all very important parts of your body’s fight against illness. There is no mystery: positive thinking works! Now we know. The ability of the mind to produce healing changes depends on emotional states, and can influence physical health for better or worse.

Can you believe that 50 percent of a drug’s effects are due to the placebo response? You don’t need trust me; trust Sapirstein, who analyzed 39 studies, done between 1974 and 1995, of depressed patients treated with drugs, psychotherapy, or a combination of both. He found that 50 percent of the drug effect was due to the placebo response. Yet, there are too many studies that have found objective improvements in health from placebos to support the notion that the placebo effect is entirely psychological. The placebo effect is a healing process, not just a curing one. Healing transforms both body and mind on a deep level. We are driven by our minds, by thought, by expectations.

Unfortunately, we are also driven by fear and false expectations. As a sick person, a patient begs for understanding and compassion, “asking” for a similar response from medical personnel. Therefore, teachers teach our health care professionals to show attention, care, affection, and hope when they are treating a sick person. As patients, we need to trust in our own ability for recovery, in any given therapy, medication or procedure and, most importantly, in our health therapists. Even just being in the healing situation accomplishes something.

If you have any ethical concerns, such as “with placebos, we are selling false hope and magical cures for all illness” you don’t need to worry. There are various unobservable processes that allegedly carry out all sorts of magical analgesic and curative functions, in the same manner as “sugar pills”. Many skeptics will reject faith, hope, belief or even alternative medical practices such as homeopathy. We know that they may not cure cancer, but by giving hope and relieving distress, placebos can provide some measure of comfort. Giving some comfort in a totally uncomfortable situation is one more reason to support the statement:” What difference does it make why something works, as long as it seems to work? “

As always we, as human society, need to be critical in our approach to the placebo. We don’t want to see the placebo as an open door to quackery, nor for big unethical business. Our intention is to protect innocent people from charlatans, leaving open the door to alternative treatments.