The Placebo Effect

Placebos work about 30% of the time; even for some people who know they’re taking them.

Placebo—which comes from “I shall please”—in Latin is any fake treatment that gives patients real or imagined results. The placebo has probably been histories single most effective medical tool so far. It’s cured more pain than aspirin, opium, and ice packs combined. – A. J. Jacobs

The placebo effect can be seen in everything from double-blind clinical trials to cupping, from acupuncture to Airborne cold tablets, from homeopathy to faith healing.

How does a phony pill or superstitious practice produce real changes?

In most cases it’s mind over medicine. MRI studies show the brains of people receiving placebos release endorphins, dopamine and other neurochemicals as a result. The placebo isn’t so much a magic bullet as a blank that prompts a volley of live ammo. Positive expectations can act as an accelerant. The stronger the belief, the greater the chance of benefit.

Placebos also work in the spiritual realm. Certain rituals and objects can have a tangible impact on believers. Growing up Catholic, I felt safer when I had on my St. Christopher medal and scapular. My behavior changed after saying the rosary or taking communion. Eastern Orthodox and Western Protestants have their own sacramental customs and charms.

 The placebo effect plays a part in answered prayer. It influences what we focus on and filter out in seeing the hand of God in our lives. “Faith” could be another name for it.

Dr. Paul Brand reminds us, “In the most literal sense, all pain is in the head; it originates there, and dwells there. Pain does not exist until you feel it, and you feel it in your mind.”

That’s why when it comes to the placebo effect; it’s all in your head.


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