I’m sure we’ve all heard of the placebo effect before, but if you haven’t don’t worry I’ll fill you in. We’ll start with what a placebo even is. It was first discovered during World War 2. With so many soldiers to treat, doctors were running low on morphine and other necessary medicines and needed to improvise. They tried administering fake drugs and telling the soldiers it was morphine. Fast-forward to the current time and this idea is still being used, all thanks to the majority of those soldiers that were lied to and still somehow got better. In drug testing, a placebo is a pill that contains no medication. It is simply just a sugar pill with no actual benefit to the person taking it. When drugs are experimented on, they usually involve a, preferably double blind, placebo test. This means that some participants are given a placebo and some are given the real drug, but neither the participants nor the experimenters know who is receiving each one. Here’s the cool part: the group receiving the placebo almost always also sees success.
image found here.
I know, it sounds crazy but it’s true. Our brains are a lot stronger than you may think. When someone of authority, like a doctor, tells you that something will fix your problems it probably will. Think about it: doctors are known to have been in school for about half of their lives and we all know medical school is no walk in the park. So when a doctor is claiming something is good for you, you are easily inclined to listen simply because they are respected and qualified and therefore are probably right.
There’s even a more concrete explanation for this phenomenon. In the case of painkillers, our brains are preconditioned to release endorphins (natural painkillers) when we are in pain/ taking painkillers. So, when the pills being taken are fake, we still see reduced pain. This is a very common cause of the placebo effect. When we think we are being treated for something, our brain acts accordingly by sending the necessary chemicals out into the body.
It’s not all about chemistry though, placebos also work simply because we are expecting them to. Expectation and anticipation are strong components in understanding how this whole thing happens. When we are anticipating that something will happen our brain is more likely to connect the dots and make it happen. This expectation is arguably the most influential part of the placebo effect.
Now that we know how the placebo effect works, it is important to understand why it matters. Of course it’s cool that no drug can do as much as a real drug sometimes but why do we care? We care because this can actually save thousands of lives by eliminating the risk of someone becoming addicted to a particular drug. When people have to rely on strong painkillers or other strong medications for long periods of time, they become increasingly likely to get addicted. Luckily, if they were instead administered a placebo that addiction risk goes away while still hopefully easing the pain.
This phenomenon is truly amazing. On a broader spectrum, the placebo effect is saying that if you truly believe in the validity of something, it could become real. Now this sadly doesn’t mean that we can just strongly believe we’ll be millionaires and then it will happen, but it does mean that there is something to be said for believing. We’ve all heard the many “mind over matter” lessons, but the placebo effect is a scientific way to prove that your mind is actually the strongest tool we have.
Image found here.