It’s all in the mind….exploring the power of the placebo effect
The placebo effect is a term used to describe the benefit someone derives from taking a ‘medicine’ that is, in fact, not a medicine. When people take something they believe to be a medicine, the power of their belief causes a shift in their thinking which then in turn can influence the physiology of the body.
In 1955, the scientist Henry Beecher published the classic work entitled “The Powerful Placebo” and he was the first scientist to define the placebo effect. Since that time, the placebo effect has been considered a scientific fact and the placebo or ‘dummy’ pill has been used to test the validity of drugs and treatments. Unless a drug exhibits effects that are greater than the placebo, the drug is not considered effective. This powerful effect can be as high as 30-40% in some cases. Depression for example, has a fairly high placebo rate – with many people reporting improvements in mood whilst taking the placebo pill. Other researchers have found that 85% of the effectiveness of cough syrups can be attributed to placebo, leaving only a tiny 15% to be active medicine. Side effects have even been reported in healthy volunteers taking placebo pills during clinical studies.
Research has been conducted for quite a few years into the placebo effect and how we might harness this in medicine. After all if people can get better taking a dummy pill, then why don’t we use this effect more often? Placebo pills are biologically inactive and are thus safe and (should) have no side effects!
So why does the placebo pill work? Our beliefs and expectations can influence and modulate activity in areas of the brain that are involved with perception, pain and the processing of emotion. Researchers have shown that our mental processes such as thoughts, feelings and beliefs as well as our will and intention can significantly influence brain function. Once upon a time, science viewed the way the brain functions as rigid and difficult to influence – especially in adulthood. However, we now know that the brain is far more open to influence and change and is in fact not rigid but quite ‘plastic’. The term ‘neural plasticity’ has been coined to represent the fact that brain function is malleable and open to influence by our own subjective intention. Once we have control over the master organ – we then have far more control and influence over the rest of the body’s functions.
So if we can positively influence our physiology through the ‘placebo’ effect – is it possible that we can negatively influence our body function through negative thinking? This has, in fact, been shown to be true and has been given the term the ‘nocebo’ effect. The nocebo effect has been scientifically proven, showing that with negative messages and verbal suggestions a patient can experience a worsening of their disease experience and outcome. It is not all just in the mind either – as blood tests shown increased inflammatory and pain markers after a nocebo procedure.
Even when someone is given a diagnosis of illness – particularly serious or life threatening illness – the nocebo effect can start to operate. This is why I find it counterproductive when well-meaning medical specialists tell a patient that they have “3 months to live” or they give similar limited predictions and opinions. Research has shown that the anxiety and stress that this causes can negatively influence pain, immunity and mood – and go on to negatively influence the disease progression.
Another aspect of this mind over matter business is when a person creates an illness. In these cases, that despite the inconvenience and suffering of the disease, the experience is giving the patient some other positive reward.
I love bringing mind-body aspects into healing as it can really support healthy outcomes. Helping people to see how their thinking and beliefs influence all aspects of their physical health and subjective experiences is really rewarding. Even asking the question how their disease may be benefiting them often brings many insights and shifts.
So if we have a choice to influence our physical reality with positive or negative thinking and beliefs – then why not focus on the positive!