Mind over Matter: The Power of the Placebo Effect
Core - Edition Nº27
The placebo effect is one of the most fascinating phenomenons of health and wellness. There is more than enough passion on either side of the argument for and against it—but most people still don’t know what to make of it. What both sides can agree on, however, is placebos work in many cases. And now, newer research demonstrates that the positive effects of it are broader and more encompassing than ever believed.
The placebo effect caught much of the general public’s attention in the mid-1900s, but its history stretches further. In fact, the history of medicine and the placebo effect is closely interlinked; the earliest record I found of it was from an English bishop named John Douglas (1721 - 1807), who anticipated the findings of modern research on the placebo effect. Following this, a doctor called Alexander Sutherland (before 1730 - after 1773) is referenced in studies as the first to use placebos in a medical context. William Cullen (1710 - 1790)—a more popular physician—is also credited as the one who coined the term due to more records of using placebos to comfort dying patients when he didn’t have the technical prowess nor knowledge to help them.
“Placebo” seemingly entered the dictionary for the first time in 1785. Defined as “a commonplace method of medicine”, its meaning changed throughout the 19th century until it was officially quantified during World War II when Harvard medical doctor Henry Beecher found a 40% improvement in soldiers who received a plain saline solution over morphine when he ran out of supply. Beecher went on to publish “The Powerful Placebo” in the Journal of the American Medical Association, which became famous for its remarkable claims, influence, and flaws.
Nevertheless, Beecher’s widespread literature positively impacted the future of study. The paradoxical nature of the idea that placebos, as a natural solution, could produce a restorative effect helps to explain its appeal. Despite being psychologically inert, the impact of placebos is captivating—mainly because of their ability to have objective outcomes and bring to life the exotic notions of the mind’s ability to produce a sense of well-being and heal our body.
Lost in its origins is the old French maxim, 'La médecine c'est guérir parfois, soulager souvent, consoler toujours'—meaning heal sometimes, relieve often, console always. These words call us to the 19th century (and still resonate today) when most ailments didn’t have a cure. And instead, natural interventions, like fresh air, a regimented lifestyle, and improving our state of mind had strong sentiments among medical professionals.
Societies all over the world have leaned on and celebrated placebos for decades. Though they are nonspecific in their effects and benefits, they can create beautiful links between the mind and body. And despite its flaws, Beecher’s placebos and research helped push forward the modern scientific era, with his work being cited almost three thousand times and placebos becoming the mainstay of gold-standard, double-blind clinical trials.
Our emotions tend to be affixed to physical manifestations: we sweat when nervous, tremble when scared, or speak faster when excited. Our mind struggles to tell the difference between imagination and reality. And it is well known that there is a link between our attitudes and beliefs and our health. In her book, Bright-sided (2009), Barbera Ehrenreich wrote:
A positive outlook cannot cure cancer, but in the case of more common complaints, we tend to suspect that people who are melancholy, who complain a lot, or who ruminate obsessively about every fleeting symptom may in fact be making themselves sick.
And to support this view further, she explains:
In contrast to the flimsy research linking attitude to cancer survival, there are scores of studies showing that happy or optimistic people are likely to be healthier than those who are sour-tempered and pessimistic. Most of these studies, however, only establish correlations and tell us nothing about causality: Are people healthy because they’re happy or happy because they’re healthy?
All about belief
The placebo effect proves that our state of mind can influence physical well-being. This world is more mysterious than many can accept, and expert knowledge is rarely as complete as we might be made to believe. That said, placebos signify the influence of our brain’s reward system—we produce more dopamine associated with reward and pleasure. Even a trip to the doctor can stimulate this feeling and ease our symptoms. And that shows how powerful they can be.
While it is worrying that the centuries of hype around the placebo effect can make it alluring enough to avoid scrutiny—even from scientists—at a lower level, all the evidence we could conjure would still be beside the point. The truth is: we all simply want to believe. And this might mean that simple belief in the placebo effect is perhaps all we need.