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Mind Over Matter

By definition, a placebo is anything that seems to be a real medicine but isn’t. It can take many forms, a capsule, a pill, a saline injection, or oral liquid. Whatever the form, placebos do not contain any active ingredient meant to affect your health. Yet, often they still produce beneficial results, a phenomenon that is known as the placebo effect.

The use of placebos in medical trials

Placebos have long been used in the clinical trials of new drugs. People in one group get the test drug, while others receive the placebo, believing they’re getting the real thing. Typically, in a trial, an experimental drug needs to be statistically more effective than the placebo to be considered a valid drug treatment.

Initially, the placebo effect was considered a sign of failure. More recently, however, many experts have concluded that a favorable placebo reaction indicates that another non-pharmacological mechanism may be present and working.

Consequently, due to the placebo’s ability to produce favorable outcomes, researchers have begun studying them in their own right. And this work with placebos has shown success in treating a wide range of medical issues, from pain and depression to anxiety disorders, irritable bowel syndrome, Parkinson’s disease, and epilepsy.

An ongoing mystery and possible explanations

For all this success, how placebos work to produce beneficial medical effects is still not fully understood.

Expectations and conditioning

Part of the power of placebos may lie in the expectations of individuals taking them. This factor is enhanced when the recipient has a strong, trusting relationship with the physician administering the placebo. Augmenting expectations is life-long classical conditioning. We’re accustomed to taking medication to feel better, and the simple act of taking a pill — even a fake one — helps elicit a positive response.

Changes in brain chemistry

Numerous studies dating back to the late 1970s have verified the physiological effects that placebos have on certain portions of the brain. For example, several studies have found that when taken as pain killers, placebos brought decreased activity in parts of the brain associated with pain and made use of many of the same neurotransmitters and neural pathways as opioids. Further, other studies have established that placebos often produce neurological changes in areas of the brain targeted by antidepressant drugs, possibly explaining why placebos have a 50 to 75 percent success rate in trials involving antidepressant drugs.

In summary, placebos have shown to work in some situations, and if they can be used safely alongside pharmaceutical interventions, they may have the potential to improve medical treatments.


Despite numerous studies demonstrating the success of placebos in improving certain medical conditions, skeptics continue to insist the placebo effect is nothing more than self-deception, instances of patients simply convincing themselves they feel better.

In the UK, a scholar who has spent much time researching the placebo effect

is Dr. Steve Taylor, a senior lecturer in psychology at Leeds Becket University. In an article published in Psychology Today, Taylor concludes there are two main implications of the placebo effect.

First, he believes the human mind can powerfully influence many aspects of our physiology, including the experience of pain, the alleviation of some symptoms, and in some conditions, actual healing. Consequently, he concludes we have much more control over our health and our bodies than we usually assume. Our bodies are not just machines that can only be fixed by medical interventions. Our mind, he insists, is intricately interconnected with our body, and with our beliefs and intentions, we unconsciously influence our health. Taylor believes each of us has far greater potential for self-regulation and self- healing than we are aware of.

He believes the second implication of the placebo effect is that the conventional view of the relationship between the mind and the brain may be wrong. Traditionally, we see the mind as a by-product of the brain, a kind of shadow cast by our neurological processes. If this is true, he asks, how is it possible for mental processes to influence the brain and body. A shadow, after all, cannot influence the thing it is the shadow of. He concludes that the placebo effect suggests that our minds are more than just the product of matter, that the mind is, in some sense, primary rather than secondary to the brain. In both implications, much food for thought!

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