The Placebo Effect, Perception, and Belief

by Kelly Noonan Gores

You may have heard of the placebo effect —a term coined by Dr. Henry Beecher in a 1955 research paper, The Powerful Placebo —you take a sugar pill thinking it’s medicine, and you actually start to feel better. But how does this really work? And how can we harness this Jedi mind trick to improve our own capacity to heal, potentially without the harmful side effects of drugs and medication?

I spoke with Joe Dispenza who offered a helpful, in-depth explanation of this powerful phenomenon. “People can accept, believe, and surrender to the thought that they’re getting the actual substance or treatment and begin to program their autonomic nervous system to make their own pharmacy of chemicals that matches the exact same chemical they think they’re taking,” he said.

Okay. But how is it that an inert substance causes a healing effect in the body? I wondered.

“The sugar pill, the inert substance is not doing the healing, so it’s the thought that’s doing the healing,” he said. “In depression  studies, as much as 81 percent of the people that are given a placebo, respond as well to the placebo as the people taking the antidepressant. So what’s the significance of that? It means they’re making their own pharmacy of antidepressants and their body, their nervous system, is the greatest pharmacist in the world.”

As Joe explained to me, the placebo effect is based on three things: conditioning, expectation, and meaning. First, you give someone a real pill and it takes away their pain. Give them the same pill again, and again, it takes away their pain. Then you give them a pill, but this time it’s a sugar pill that looks just like the other pill and because they’ve been conditioned by the repetition, their body begins to make the same chemicals that make them feel better.

The second thing that influences the placebo effect is one’s expectation. You begin to expect something to occur from a medication or treatment, and the moment you select that potential, that possibility in your future, your body begins to physiologically change in preparation for the event. You can say to a person in a placebo study, “We’re going to give you a drug,” and if the doctor’s enthusiastic, it actually works better to take away your pain. If the doctor is enthusiastic and the patient begins to expect their pain to go away, the patient begins to make their own morphine.

The third element of a placebo is assigning meaning. If you say, “Hey, you know, here’s your receptors on the end of your nerve cells and serotonin has to be picked up in the synaptic space. This chemical keeps serotonin there so it’ll remove depression.” You’re looking at the charts and you’re assigning meaning to why you’re taking this pill, so you’ll produce a better result. The more you know about the way something works, the deeper its meaning for you.


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