The Placebo Effect is a fascinating field of science because it challenges established notions of how we heal. In the traditional model you would go to a doctor and he or she would present you with a diagnosis and some treatment options. Placebos work differently in that they heal from within, not without and this presents a choice: you can either heal from a drug or from a placebo.
In placebo studies, patients are given a medicine and told it will either cure them or make the symptoms more manageable. Of course, they’re usually given a sugar pill or a saline injection instead of the “medicine.” In many cases patients who were given the placebo reported improvements in their health like what is seen by participants who took the actual medication.
The key to placebos, or so was thought, is that people don’t know they’re receiving a substitute. The idea is that they believe so strongly in the treatment that they begin to heal themselves. But what happens if patients know they are getting a placebo? Is it still possible to heal yourself when you know what you’re taking isn’t the real thing?
The answer is yes. A recent study by a team at the University of Colorado Boulder examined whether or not pre-knowledge of a placebo impacted its performance. The researchers applied a heating element to the forearms of study participants. The element was removed and a blue analgesic gel was applied to the area. In reality, the gel was Vaseline tinted with blue food coloring. Researchers gave some participants information about the supposed treatment and some were told it was a placebo.
The interesting part of this experiment is, those participants who went through four rounds of the heating element and subsequent treatment before being told the gel was a placebo were able to reproduce the effects later on even when they knew it was Vaseline. These people believed in the treatment’s efficacy to such an extent that it no longer mattered if the medication was “real.”
These results have been replicated in other studies. In 2010 a team from Harvard gave 40 patients with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) a placebo. Each patient received a bottle clearly labeled as “placebo pills” and was told they were made of an inert substance which had been shown to help IBS sufferers. A second group of 40 IBS patients, given no pills, served as a control group.
After three weeks, the group who took the placebo pills reported twice as much symptom relief compared to those who received no pills. Here is where it gets even more interesting. The relief provided by the placebo pills worked as well as the best IBS medications.
These studies offer a glimpse into the power of the subconscious mind. It didn’t matter if the patients knew with their conscious minds that they were given a placebo. They were able to heal themselves because their subconscious minds were conditioned to put their belief in some “thing” external from them, like a pill. And as a result, even though their conscious minds knew it was a placebo, their subconscious minds had been programmed their whole lives to believe that pills heal.
So let’s say you’ve taken pills your whole life to help you with various health conditions. You’ve used different medications to aid you in healing headaches, allergies, depression, and even the flu. Then based on your repeated experiences, something outside of you was changing how you felt inside of you. When you noticed a change in your internal state, you associated whatever it was outside of you with the internal change–and you felt better. In time, you conditioned yourself to expect the same outcome without even thinking about it. You anticipated that your familiar past experiences were going to be the same predictable future experiences. Put another way, you trained your brain and body to release the same pharmacy of chemicals as if you were given the actual medication. In the Harvard study it’s entirely possible the placebo group made their own natural anti-inflammatory drugs.
Now, what if you were to change your belief from giving your power to something outside of you to heal you and place your belief on the power inside of you to heal? What if you changed your belief to the understanding that your body has the natural ability to heal itself if it’s given the right biochemical stimuli? What if you conditioned your body daily to a new mind and expected that your health could be changed by thought alone? Is it possible that once you understood the what and the why the how would become easier?