A strange phenomenon found in medicine is the placebo effect, where a patient’s symptoms improve after being given a completely inert substance (like a sugar pill) under the guise of a medication. The placebo effect is not only limited to pills, but any procedure that is intended for a therapeutic purpose (but does not have any actual therapeutic value). It is believed that the placebo effect is a strong component in many forms of alternative medicine such as homeopathy and faith healing. The placebo effect has been proven to be effective in improving or even curing the symptoms of some diseases such as allergies, asthma, headaches, abdominal pains and even severe illnesses such as heart attacks and cancer. Placebos are particularly effective for psychological symptoms.
There has been much research to determine how the placebo effect works. The leading theories so far are that placebos act to relieve anxiety and condition the patient into a more positive mindset, reducing stress and boosting the body’s natural healing process. This would also explain why placebos are effective in pain relief as perceived pain is amplified by negative emotions. Cognitive dissonance may also play a role, where the patient’s mind believes that since it is receiving treatment, it must be getting “better”, producing a beneficial psychosomatic reaction. Essentially, fooling the mind to believe and expect that it will get better makes the patient actually feel better.
Research into the placebo effect has also revealed some bizarre characteristics of the effect. For example, it has been found that the placebo effect is stronger if there are more pills, the pill is larger, branded or generally looks fancier. Even colour plays a role, with blue pills acting better as depressants (“downers”) and red pills acting better as stimulants (“uppers”). Telling a patient that a placebo will have a certain effect boosts that effect. Human factors such as the doctor’s credibility and confidence or the patient’s expectations and culture are known to drastically change the efficacy of a placebo. What is weirder is that studies have shown that telling a patient that they are being prescribed a placebo will not affect its efficacy, as long as they are told that “it could help them”.
The placebo effect is a great example of how much influence our mind, beliefs and expectations have on our health and our lives. The more positive thoughts and beliefs we have, the healthier we become. The more negative we are, the less effective treatments become. In fact, the same pill that gives people the placebo effect can be used to increase pain and symptoms if it is described in a certain way. This is known as the nocebo effect – the opposite of the placebo effect.