On Placebos

Mar 1, 2018 ~ 5 min read ~ thoughts

On Placebos

The power of the human mind is staggering.

Our brain consumes 25%1 of the energy our bodies generate. Think about that, one quarter of our energy needs are to feed our minds.

Why would it need that much? Well, it controls everything, doesn’t it? Its domain includes all of our autonomic functions, our musculoskeletal system, the coordination of all our many many sensory inputs to give us some semblance of an understanding of the world around us.

All of that plus it thinks of socially relevant and tremendously important memes to post on the internet.

Well, maybe its potential is underutilized at times.

Even so, the brain does have the ability to believe something hard enough that it can actually make it happen2. Science even has a term for this: The Placebo Effect.

What is a placebo?

placebo | pləˈsēbō |

noun (plural placebos) a harmless pill, medicine, or procedure prescribed more for the psychological benefit to the patient than for any physiological effect: his Aunt Beatrice had been kept alive on sympathy and placebos for thirty years | as modifier : placebo drugs. • a substance that has no therapeutic effect, used as a control in testing new drugs. • a measure designed merely to calm or please someone.

ORIGIN late 18th century: from Latin, literally ‘I shall be acceptable or pleasing’, from placere ‘to please’.

How can something with no “benefit to the patient other than for psychological effect” actually do any real good?

Well, we come back to our old friend the brain, don’t we? “Psychological effect.”

I think it’d be helpful to frame this in the context of stress.

Fear Stress is the mind killer. It affects our sleep3, which directly affects our health, which hinders our ability to heal, which then affects our frame of mind, which in turn adds more stress… So on and so forth. A vicious cycle.

So if we can derive a physiological effect—through psychological means or otherwise—that reduces stress, then it would seem logical that it would also enhance our sleep, and restorative abilities.

It puts me in mind of faith healing and other alternative medicines. On the surface, it seems quite likely that these are actually codified placebo tools.

Now, this may all sound a little “woo woo” to you4. And I can understand that. But the thing is, it’s not pseudoscience. There have been studies on the placebo effect. Corporations even worry about it.

It is, however, in a scientific blind spot. How do you objectively test for something as subjective as pain or relief thereof? Even if you monitor the pain centers of your subject’s brains, you still can only prove that something is happening. But what exactly? Who can know what thoughts lurk in the head of man5?

There is a reason Psychology is considered a soft science; because it ventures where hard science can’t tread. It’s too amorphous, too subjective.

I Shall Please

If you have heard of the placebo effect, it was probably in a negative connotation. Like it’s your mind playing tricks on you.

“Oh, that’s just the placebo effect.” A doctor might say as if referring to boxed wine.

But is the placebo effect really a bad thing? If you can heal yourself, or relieve enough stress to let your body naturally heal, does it matter if it’s a placebo? It seems to me that if you’re in pain, you should take relief wherever you can find it.

That said, it’s not magic. Don’t take this post as an excuse to believe that some televangelist can cure cancer. He simply can’t. Maybe you will feel a little better before you die (which, you know, isn’t all bad I guess), but if there are valid medical treatments with good odds of success don’t ignore them6.

Don’t be a Debbie Downer

It does make me wonder, though, can you be immune to placebo? Can you be so doubtful—even of proper medicine—that it lessens the function of it?

Quite possibly. There is the concept of a nocebo:

nocebo | nəˈsēbō |

noun (plural nocebos) a detrimental effect on health produced by psychological or psychosomatic factors such as negative expectations of treatment or prognosis.

ORIGIN 1960s: from Latin, literally ‘I shall cause harm’, from nocere ‘to harm’, on the pattern of placebo.

So does this mean that being overly negative could literally kill us?


So in the future, before you accuse someone of being a Pollyanna7 you should remember that the power of positive thinking may, in fact, be life-saving.

  1. This is a ballpark number. I’ve seen it at 20% too. But hey, you and I, we use our brains more than other people, right? Right? ↩︎

  2. Not just anything, of course. I’m not talking about bending spoons. ↩︎

  3. Actually it’s much, much worse than that. But at a minimum it does hurt our sleep quality. ↩︎

  4. Coo coo ca choo ↩︎

  5. The Shadow knows… Oh well, nevermind. ↩︎

  6. That should really go without saying, of course. Then again the base level of stupidity in this country has spiked of late. So, you know, don’t be stupid. ↩︎

  7. I really hope you get the Pollyanna reference. If not, read a book—or watch a movie. ↩︎