You are the Placebo


Chapter 3 – A Brief History of the Placebo 

  When Harvard-educated American surgeon Henry Beecher was serving in World War II, he ran out of morphine. Without skipping a beat, one of the nurses filled a syringe with saline and gave the soldier a shot, just as if she were injecting him with morphine. The soldier calmed down right away. He reacted as though he’d actually received the drug, even though all he’d received was a squirt of saltwater.


After that stunning success, whenever the field hospital ran out of morphine, Beecher did the same thing again: injected saline, the idea that we can alter physical reality through thought, belief, and expectation alone certainly didn’t start in that World War II filed hospital. The Bible is filled with stories.


The late Indian guru Sathya Sai Baba, widely considered by his followers to be an avatar known to manifest holy ash called vibhuti from the palms of his hands. This fine gray ash has been said to have the power to heal many physical, mental, and spiritual ills when either eaten or applied to the skin as a paste. Necebo response.


Poison ivy

1962 study done in Japan with a group of children who were all extremely allergic to poison ivy. Researchers rubbed one forearm of each child with a poison-ivy leaf but told them the leaf was harmless. As a control, they rubbed the child’s other forearm with a harmless leaf that they claimed was poison ivy. All the children developed a rash on the arm rubbed with the harmless leaf that was thought to be poison ivy. And 11 of the 13 children developed no rash at all where the poison had actually touched them.


60s looked at people researchers gave 40 asthma patients inhalers containing nothing but water vapor, although they told the subjects (48 percent) experienced asthmatic symptoms, such as restriction of their airways, with 12 (30 percent) of the group suffering full-blown asthmatic attacks. Researchers then gave the subjects inhalers said to contain medicine that would relieve their symptoms, and in each case, their airways did indeed open back up although again, the inhalers contained only water vapour. Endorphins (the body’s natural painkillers),


Lvan Pavlov depends on associating one thing with another-like Pavlov’s dogs associating the sound of the bell with food after Pavlov started ringing it every day before he fed them. In time, the dogs were conditioned to automatically salivate in anticipation of a meal whenever they heard a bell. As a result of this type of conditioning, their bodies became trained to physiologically respond to a new stimulus in the environment (in this case, the bell), even without the original stimulus that elicited the response (the food) being present.

West Meets East

By this time, the Eastern practice of Transcendental Meditation (TM), taught by Indian guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, had caught on in the United States, fueled by the enthusiastic participation of several celebrities (starting with the Beatles in the 1960s). Norman Cousins.


Cousin’s doctor had diagnosed him with a degenerative disorder called ankylosing spondylitis and had given him only a 1-in-500 chance of recovery. Convinced that a persistent negative emotional state had contributed to his illness, he decided it was equally possible that a more positive emotional state reverse the damage. He found that ten minutes of hearty laughter gave him two hours of pain-free sleep. Eventually, he made a complete recovery. Cousins, quite simply, laughed himself to health.


If the truth be told, our bodies are indeed capable of creating a host of biological chemicals that can heal, protect us from pain, help us sleep deeply, enhance our immune systems, make us feel pleasure, and even encourage us to fall in love.

Taking Mind over Matter into Your Own Hands

An astonishing new twist to placebo research came in a 2010 that showed that placebo worked even when people knew they were taking a placebo. In the study, Kaptchuk and his colleagues gave 40 patients with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) a placebo. After three weeks, the group taking the placebo reported twice as much symptom relief as the no-treatment group-a difference that Kaptchuk noted is comparable to the performance of the best real IBS drugs.


In short, the more you learn about the “what” and the “why,” the easier and more effective the “how” becomes. (My hope is that this book will do the same for you; the more you know what you’re doing and why you’re doing it, the better results you’re bound to get.)


The greater meaning behind Steele’s research, then, is quite what we’re conditioned to believe about ourselves, and what we’re programmed to think other people think about us, affects our performance; including how successful we are. It’s the same with placebos: What we’re conditioned to believe will happen when we take a pill, and what we think that everyone around us (including our doctors) expects will happen when we do, affects how our bodies respond to the pill.