What do you make of this headline: Placebos Are Getting More Effective. The article says over the last couple decades, placebos have been having an increasingly powerful effect. How can that be? My first thought was, "Maybe people are more gullible than they used to be." But the answer is far more interesting than that.
Research into the "placebo effect" started right after World War II. An anesthetist, Henry Beecher, was tending to American troops in Italy. Morphine was running low, so Beecher's assistant injected a soldier with saline water but told the soldier it was morphine.
Beecher was surprised to see the shot helped. When the war was over, Beecher started looking into this phenomenon.
In a long but fascinating article in Wired Magazine, Steve Silberman explains why placebos are getting stronger. Here's his answer in a nutshell:
The double-blind test against a placebo has become the gold standard for good research on drugs. The FDA requires it, and the "placebo response" (what percentage of people respond to a sugar pill) was established and has been used for years.
But nowadays, more and more drugs are for mental health issues, which are more influenced by the placebo effect than straight-ahead physical issues. Your own depression, for example, is more influenced by your expectations than, say, your cholesterol level.
The result is: If you combine and average all the experiments, you clearly see a stronger placebo effect over the years. Researchers may have to re-study drugs like Prozac and Paxil — it seems possible they may not be much better than placebos, now that we know the placebo effect is more pronounced for the mental health problems those drugs were tested for.
Another interesting finding is that researchers have gotten different placebo effects at different locations. Prozac, for example, has a greater effect in studies in America than in Europe.
Also, "a pill's shape, size, branding, and price all influence its effects on the body," wrote Silberman. "Soothing blue capsules make more effective tranquilizers than angry red ones, except among Italian men, for whom the color blue is associated with their national soccer team — Forza Azzurri!"
We call it the placebo effect, but it isn't a single effect. The body can produce many different physical reactions to expectation. If subjects think the placebo kills pain, their expectation rallies their bodies to increase the production of endorphins. If the subjects think the drug will make them relax, their bodies react by lowering the stress hormone level in the blood.
"Mechanisms like these can elevate mood, sharpen cognitive ability, alleviate digestive disorders, relieve insomnia, and limit the secretion of stress-related hormones like insulin and cortisol," writes Silberman.
In other words, expectation can rally the body to greater effort than it would normally make. Remember, these people are taking the placebo to alleviate a symptom they have been suffering with. Their bodies did not produce this effect on its own before taking the placebo. Their expectation — their belief — stimulated the body to do something it had not been doing up until that time; something the body was clearly capable of doing all along.
When I read this, I thought about aboriginal "healing ceremonies" where a shaman or other well-respected healer chants and blows smoke and says prayers, and maybe the family gathers around to participate in the ceremony. With that kind of activity and intention, it seems likely (if the sick person believed in it) that the ceremony could have many positive physical effects that could, in fact, really help the person heal.
If a pill handed to a Westerner by a doctor could rally the body in many different ways, it seems likely a healing ceremony performed by a shaman in that context could rally the body even more.
But most of us don't believe in that sort of thing, so what good does this do us? Well, we can change our beliefs, can't we? I'm not saying we should start believing in magic smoke, but we could change what we believe is possible. We could change a limiting belief we have about our potential or our future or our health. And if we did, couldn't that also change the way our bodies physically respond? Of course it could.
So how can you change a belief? Two of the best methods are the Antivirus for Your Mind and Slotralogy. The antivirus for your mind is a somewhat blunt instrument, requiring no sophistication or skill, but it works very effectively. Slotralogy works in a different way, and they work very well together.
If you're doing everything you can to reach a goal but you feel somehow stymied — whether that goal is physical or emotional, financial or personal or marital — it may be a limiting belief holding you back. Instead of continuing to beat your head against an invisible wall or persisting in something that hasn't worked in the past, try belief change. It's the next best thing to a magic pill.
Adam Khan is the author of Antivirus For Your Mind: How to Strengthen Your Persistence and Determination and Feel Good More Often and co-author with Klassy Evans of Viewfinder: How to Change the Way You Look at Things.