Placebo Effect or Why You Can’t Think Your Way to Be Superman

Placebo effect is real but limited

No other scientific phenomenon has traveled as widely or has been as misunderstood as the Placebo effect. The entirely harmless concept has resulted in wild spin-offs ranging from the law of attraction to various alternative therapies. Seashells therapy for treating cancer, anyone?

But before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s review the science and refresh our basics.

This is how the efficacy of new medicines is tested

Whenever scientists and researchers want to check the efficacy of a new medicine, they hold blind trials by dividing the volunteers into groups and administering medicine to one group and placebo to the other.

To take a grossly simplified example,

Let’s say, a new medicine for headaches is discovered. The scientists form three groups — group 1 is administered a dose of this new medicine, group 2 is given sugar pills and group 3 is given nothing. The first two groups are told by the scientists that the new medicine will relieve their headache in about 30 minutes. After those 30 minutes are up, the scientists go back to all the groups and ask them if they had any relief. Let’s say, in group 1, 70% of people no longer have a headache. In group 2, 50% and in group 3, 30% of people have been cured.

The scientists will take this information and come up with a set of conclusions:

a) Simply the passage of time will relieve headaches about 30% of the time.
b) The placebo will relieve headaches about 50% of the time.

They will use the above two inferences to then see how effective the medicine is. If it performs significantly above the placebo, then the medicine is considered a success.

(The above example is an oversimplified version of how scientists operate. The actual process is thankfully much more complex and gives conclusive results.)

Believe it, it’s real

Isn’t it surprising that sugar pills produce results 50% of the time? Isn’t is even more surprising that sugar pills produce results at all? After all, sugar isn’t a natural remedy for headaches.

This is where the power of placebo comes in. The resulting relief doesn’t come from the sugar pills but from the belief that some medicine has been administered. Which means, you can substitute sugar with salt or any other substance and still receive comparable results.

The belief in medical system and doctors is enough to relieve a headache. This is the placebo effect.

Sadly, it’s not a cure-all

The science is still not very confident on what the placebos can and cannot achieve. Can placebos cure headaches? Yes. Can placebos cure cancer? Maybe not.

To understand this better, let’s take a detour and move back several millennia to our hunter-gatherer days.

Let’s say you’re hungry. It’s been a week and all you had were a few wild berries. Suddenly you and your tribe see a rabbit and rabbit happens to be one of your favorite foods. You run after the rabbit. The trees, the grass, and everything else disappear from your view because you are solely concentrated on the rabbit. As you are chasing the poor rabbit, a thorn slices your foot. What would you do? Most probably, you will take out the thorn and continue chasing the rabbit, your hunger overriding any immediate pain from the thorn.

Let’s raise the stakes. From the hunter, you become the hunted. A leopard is chasing you and a thorn slices your foot. You will not even take the time to remove the thorn, saving your life is infinitely more important.

To enable you to survive, evolution has provided you with ready-made natural painkillers. Taking a placebo can activate those areas of the brain, relieving you from the pain. But it wouldn’t heal the cut from the thorn. That will remain there until it heals with the passage of time.

As Brian Resnick put it in this must-read article,

Placebos tweak our experience of symptoms, not their underlying causes. — Brian Resnick

Therefore, placebos are usually ineffective for treatment of cancer. Belief works wonders but unfortunately, it isn’t always enough.

And that is why placebos are not a cure-all.

(Having said that, placebo effect is still being studied and we will likely know more about it in the coming years.)

The wild theories

Placebo effect has been taken by several groups of misinformed people and blown completely out of proportion. One such example: if you believe in it enough, it will happen. Or the law of attraction.

I hate to be the one to burst this feel good bubble but belief isn’t enough. Just believing in something wouldn’t deliver the thing to you. The universe won’t conspire to deliver all your heart’s desires to you, packaged with a bow.

Don’t get me wrong, I would love for it to be true. Who wouldn’t? If it were true, I would be the first person rejoicing. I am a lazy ass, just believing food will appear without me shopping for the vegetables or slogging in the kitchen would make me the happiest person on Earth. But that doesn’t happen, however hard I try.

Another example: Alternative therapies. While sea-shell therapy for treating headaches will probably work, the same therapy won’t cure you of a cancerous tumor.

Bringing us to becoming Superman. You can’t think your way to be a superman. To be Supermann, be a super man of action. Action trumps sitting-in-your-room-visualizing-miraculous-transformation every time. Take flying lessons, take karate lessons and above all, take a sugar pill a day.

Recommended reading: To learn more about the placebo effect, read this and this.


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