Imagine that scientists have discovered a painkiller that is incredibly cheap to make, has no dangerous side effects, and performs at a level comparable to—or even better than—90% of drugs developed in the United States. You might find yourself wanting to reach for a bottle the next time you sprain your back.
There’s just one problem: the medication doesn’t, in the traditional sense, work. It’s a sugar pill.
The Placebo effect has been a known entity since at least the days of Ben Franklin, when French King Louis XVI tasked an elite panel of scientists and thinkers—Franklin included—with debunking claims made by Mesmerists. For instance, that a properly trained Mesmerist could cure people’s afflictions by manipulating an invisible force called “animal magnetism.” Patients did seem to respond to the treatments, sometimes crying out or even falling unconscious, and at least some reported positive results.
However, the commission ultimately found that none of the Mesmerist practices could be successfully replicated if the patient was blindfolded. The afflicted person had to observe their treatment firsthand, strongly implying that whatever the Mesmerists were doing, it seemed to operate on the patients’ minds and not on their bodies. As the panel concluded, “the imagination singly produces all the effects attributed to the magnetism.”
However, placebos are not a mere con perpetrated on the gullible. In 1955, Dr. Henry Beecher analyzed 15 studies and found that one third of patients showed significant response to a placebo, regardless of the ailment. Some studies have shown that placebos can affect blood pressure. Placebos can also trigger production of a body’s natural endorphins, chemical cousins to drugs like morphine, and can lead to greater release and uptake of dopamine, a neurotransmitter which dulls sensitivity to pain.
What’s at play here? Leading placebo researcher Ted Kaptchuk believes the secret to a placebo is the biochemical effects of a patient’s expectation of getting better. The placebo acts on the mind, and the mind acts on the body. Fooling people is not, it seems, even a necessary ingredient. In 2010, Kaptchuk conducted a trial where IBS sufferers were given sugar pills—and told upfront they were only receiving placebos. 59% of these patients still reported experiencing noticeable relief from symptoms, a definite improvement from the 35% rate in the no-treatment group, and indeed better than most IBS drugs.
The ritual surrounding treatment seems to carry its own power. As The New York Times Magazine summarized Kaptchuk’s position, “the placebo effect is a biological response to an act of caring; that somehow the encounter itself calls forth healing and that the more intense and focused it is, the more healing it evokes.”
What does this all mean to the consumer? For now, it seems like a good idea to make sure you find a doctor with an excellent, and convincing bedside manner. And when it comes time to dose up, summon up the Tinkerbell method: try to harness your belief.