The power of the mind: the placebo effect

placebo (1)

Prya Oliveira, Staff Writer


The strength of the mind is often overlooked when compared to the physical pain that we experience. Pain killers are sold at the store right around the corner, and pills that improve emotional pain are prescribed frequently. According to Psychology Today, antidepressants are the third most commonly prescribed medication in the United States. However, they also reported that placebo pills have increasingly been better at providing relief than the real pills. It is likely that you’ve heard of the “placebo effect” before, which occurs when a patient receives a treatment (such as pills), that does not contain the actual drug, but the belief of the treatment being real often causes the patient to feel as though it is working. Placebo pills have been around since the use of medicine itself, but in 1710, Scottish pharmacologist William Cullen prescribed placebos to “satisfy the patient’s demand and his expectations.” The placebo itself is an interesting phenomenon. Soldiers in WWII would decline morphine to treat their pain even though civilians with the same injuries would demand it. Henry Beecher, an anesthesiologist during WWII, explained that living through the trauma that the soldiers faced changed their views on pain, and a huge part of that came from one’s ability to heal from their own psychological expectations. The soldiers rejected the medicine to be able to treat their pain without drugs, proving that physical pain can sometimes be controlled with the mind.

Although the placebo effect is created with a “sham pill,” research has proven that these pills can improve someone’s condition. Clinical psychologist, Jeremy D. Safran Ph.D. found that 90 percent of painkillers made in the U.S. failed to show a significant improvement over placebos. The effect is much greater if you tell that patient the medication is harder to get, or that it is pricey. The color of the pills plays a role in the effect too, because people have better reactions to blue pills as sedatives and white pills for pain. Some people do argue that these pills have become a crutch; that people have tried to get the pill for any issue, while others say that this only proves the power of suggestion.

Harvard Medical School ran a clinical therapy trial for Irritable Bowel Syndrome, led by Professor Ted Kaptchuk, where he told the people involved that they were taking placebos instead of the actual drug. Everyone questioned the integrity of this experiment, as Kapthuck, in a way, defeated the purpose by telling them the truth. But the results were surprising because twice as many people in the trial who knew they were taking the placebo said that they had symptom relief compared to those who weren’t getting any treatment. Kapthuck shocked many by coming to the conclusion that people who knew they were taking the placebos doubled their improvement rates to a point that was just as equal to the medication that was being prescribed for Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Kapthuck said that “sometimes the body knows more than the mind,” “if the performance is evocative enough, even though you know it’s fake, your body reacts in ways that go beyond the mind.”

Although it has been known that placebos do provide relief, when you give “honest placebos,” that is what has been shown to give the best results. However, though these pills may provide relief, they do not cure things. For example, placebos can’t cure cancer, but they can be used to treat depression. Alia Crum, an investigator at the Stanford Mind & Body Lab said that “we view placebo effect as the product of your body’s ability to heal, which is activated by your mind-sets and expectations to heal.”

The placebo effect is nothing new to society. It is a crazy concept to grasp, but it is a fact that the effects are even greater when people are told that what they are being given is a placebo. With brand new information of this phenomenon coming to life, the studies show us that our mind is indeed stronger than what we believe. Our ability to heal ourselves comes from the belief that we have in our own bodies, showing that we may not necessarily need drugs for certain treatments.


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