Placebo Effect: A Sweet Pill to Swallow?

In Furtherment on August 3, 2012 at 5:48 pm

The role of perception and the brain in physical health is supreme. Evolutionary medicine states that pain, sickness and fever are all evolutionary responses for when the body needs to recover from injury or infection. Looking at it this way, it isn’t hard to believe that the brain can numb pain or reduce a fever if it believes that it should.

A placebo is some sort of ineffective medical treatment that is intended to deceive the patient and take advantage of this response. Patients given a placebo can show a remarkable improvement in condition, despite their lack of actual treatment. The usual treatment is a simple sugar pill, but it can extend to types of placebo surgery, where the patient is put under anaesthetic, left to wake up, and told that the operation was a success.

In fact, it’s theorised that a lot of the usefulness of standard medical treatment can be attributed to the placebo effect. So can we exploit it?

In Robert Wiseman’s ‘59 Seconds’ we learn that study participants who were reminded of the amount of exercise they took on a daily basis altered their beliefs about themselves and their bodies responded to these new beliefs in kind. The participants weren’t required to take part in any kind of fitness programme. In short, merely thinking about exercise and how healthy you are appears to have the capacity to make you healthier.

This experiment shows how powerful human belief can be and how we can harness it for ourselves. Thinking positive thoughts about your body can have positive physical effects upon it, but also vice versa. I don’t want to wander into the realms of the ‘Secret’. This is from a purely physiological and subconscious level. In a way, we’re moving away from the placebo effect, which is based in science, and drifting towards positive thinking and the gratitude attitude. Not that I’m knocking them; I have future posts planned on these phenomena too.

The placebo effect has been exploited in many different ways by people looking to get healthier. In Tim Ferris’ Four Hour Body, he describes how Phil Libin lost 28 pounds of weight in six months by only making one conscious change to his life style; he weighed himself every day. Phil theorised that the awareness of his weight subconsciously affected the thousands of miniscule decisions that he made each day, making him healthier because of it. The same subconscious effect has been exploited by people who choose to chew their food a set amount of times before swallowing it. Not only does this slow you down and make you conscious of the amount that you’re eating; it primes and improves the rest of your digestive process.

There are simple ways to apply these benefits to the exercise of your brainpower, too. Regular reinforcement of how clever you are, or anything else you want to improve, can have a physical effect if you believe it. The joys of neuroplasticity mean that there’s always room for growth. Dedication to some sort of mental training will have an even greater effect; there’s the mental growth from doing the exercises and the reinforcement effect of self-belief.

A good rule of thumb is this; if you want to get better, challenge yourself.

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  1. Great post.

    Placebo is by far the most fascinating medical development, and I truely believe the entire aim of medicine will one day be utilizing the placebo to it’s full extent.

    Imagine a world where you never had to take another dangerous pill, or have an invasive surgery operation performed.

    Our minds are more powerful than we ever give them credit for.

    • A lovely idea. I’ve recently read ‘Stranger in a Strange Land’. Have you read it? People start learning how to access the power of their minds.

      ‘What are you around here? Staff physician?’
      ‘Medicine student.’
      ‘So. Learn anything?’
      ‘I’ve learned that medicine isn’t necessary.’

  2. [...] you make it. This works with happiness and confidence particularly well. In a way similar to the placebo effect, the body starts to rely on something that isn’t really there, and provides the [...]

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