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The Truth About The Placebo Effect
The placebo effect. We’ve all heard the name, but few of us understand just how potent it really can be, and fewer still understand what it truly is. Do our brains have the power, as we will discuss in this article, to essentially trick us into recovering from illness?
What is the Placebo Effect
First, let’s get clear on our definitions. The “placebo effect” is a term used to describe the phenomenon in which people feel better or appear to exhibit signs of recovery after taking a substitute for medicine. The classic example of a placebo is the control group in a blind medical study being given a sugar pill instead of the medicine being tested. A placebo, however, can really be anything; a pill, an injection, or some other form of treatment that does not contain an active ingredient that’s designed to improve health.
There have been many studies and situations in which people who were taking a placebo appeared to get the same or similar benefits as if they had taken the real medicine. On the other hand, placebos have been known to cause negative effects on those who take them, even though they contain no harmful ingredients. This reaction, either positive or negative, became known as the placebo effect.
One notable example of the placebo effect involved study participants who were all given a placebo treatment. One group was told they were receiving a stimulant drug, when in reality, the pill they took had no such qualities. Nevertheless, after taking the pill, the researchers observed that the participants’ pulse rate, blood pressure and mental alertness all improved, as well as their reaction time.
A different group in the same study was given the same placebo, but told it would help them sleep. They reported feeling drowsy afterwards.
The placebo effect, as you can see, is not some urban legend; it’s a real, documented scientific phenomenon. But now that this has been definitively established, we have to uncover how and why it happens in the first place. How is it possible that people can be healed or hurt by a treatment or pill they receive when it doesn’t contain active ingredients?
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The Strange Powers of the Brain
The brain is, in a sense, the vehicle through which we perceive and experience reality. Every physical sensation, emotion and physiological response is generated by neurochemical compounds produced by and released from the brain. Some of these chemicals are associated with feelings of pleasure, like dopamine. Others, like endorphins, help give you a boost of energy and help dull pain during physical activity, and might generate a pleasant sensation as well (this is what causes a g“runner’s high”). Serotonin plays a huge role in regulating emotions, and imbalances of this hormone can influence the risk and severity of forms of depression and other mood disorders.
There are also specific regions of the brain which are associated with specific moods and emotional and physiological functions. It’s the interplay of all these factors that generate how we feel at any given time.
What does all this have to do with the placebo effect? Well, it’s precisely these neurochemical actions that could be what creates the effect in the first place. According to a recent article published by Harvard Medical School, the brain can release pain-numbing endorphins and other chemicals and improve symptoms, in some cases to the point where it can be as effective as an actual real treatment. If the brain believes that you have received a real medicine, it will, to some degree, actually cause the effects of that medication to manifest themselves.
The placebo effect isn’t confined only to medications, however. One study, published in 2002 in the New England Journal of Medicine, detailed an incredible case in which patients with severe knee pain received a “fake” surgery prior to beginning physical therapy. The surgeons simply made some incisions and cleaned them, then sewed them back up. Incredibly, the patients who received the fake surgery performed just as well in therapy as the patients who received real surgery on their knees.
More research needs to be done to fully understand the placebo effect, but the findings of the research so far speaks volumes about the power of the human brain to overcome illness and injury, or even manifest physical phenomena. There really is a lot of truth in that old expression “mind over matter.”