Placebo Effect: Power of the Human Mind

We usually visit a doctor when we don't feel well. After waiting our turn, getting examined, and discovering the problem, we focus solely on what we should do to improve.

Bitely Team
Last update:calendarApr 20, 2024
Read time:clock5 min
Placebo Effect: Power of the Human Mind

We usually visit a doctor when we don't feel well. After waiting our turn, getting examined, and finding out the problem, we focus solely on what we should do to get better. A typical process would involve receiving a prescription at the end of this process. It doesn't matter what medicine the doctor prescribes as long as we feel well. Ultimately, we believe our doctor knows what's best for us.

What if, after taking the prescribed medication with confidence that it will work, it turns out that the medication has not been proven to produce any results? But you’ve recovered. As you expected, you feel great after taking those pills.

This is the basic concept behind the "placebo effect." The calm effect happens when people believe a drug can heal them despite its lack of proven therapeutic benefits. Because the word placebo derives from the Latin word "I will please" (I will relieve from complaints), drugs and treatment are called a placebo on their own. Placebos resemble real drugs, but they are not natural drugs and, therefore, cannot be used to treat any disease.

It can be a placebo, a candy in pill form, a liquid injected with a needle (e.g., saline), or even an entire surgical procedure. However, these treatments have no direct effect on the disease. Placebos improve people's health because they believe the medicine they’re taking will have a positive impact. People are more likely to benefit from placebos if they think the results will be positive.

In the 1950s, it was revealed that fake surgeries also had a similar effect. At that time, LIMA surgery was frequently used for heart and vascular occlusion. People believed that this surgery would cure coronary heart disease. According to medical circles, the decreased complaints after the surgery indicated this operation was very effective. Despite this, physicians who doubted the surgery's effectiveness conducted two independent studies. The patients were divided into two groups.

The patients in the first group were operated on, and those in the second group did not undergo surgery. However, patients who did not have surgery were given anesthesia and stitched up so that they would think they had undergone an operation. The study's results showed no difference between patients who had surgery and those who did not. According to the research conducted in both groups, chest pains decreased on the same scale.

A similar study was conducted on patients with depression. Patients with depression were given placebo pills that looked like drugs. These pills were described to them as antidepressants. The use of these pills reduced 50% of depression patients' complaints.

During the Second World War, Henry Beecher, anesthesiologist, medical ethicist, and investigator of the placebo, was responsible for treating wounded American soldiers. However, he ran out of morphine and began treating the soldiers with saline solution. Forty percent of the soldiers who received salt water reported relief from their pain after receiving this "treatment,” which shows how powerful the placebo effect can be.

While placebo is a powerful phenomenon, it also has an evil twin called a nocebo. Nocebo means “harmful” or “I will harm” in Latin. A nocebo occurs when an individual believes that something will harm them and gets hurt as a result. In pharmacology, nocebo observes the side effects expected from the actual drug after the ineffective treatment method. While we do not experience any side effects while using a drug, one day, we read the package insert of the drug and experience the side effects written there. This is referred to as nocebo.

As an example of the nocebo, a person might start experiencing side effects such as itching, vomiting, nausea, or any other discomfort that’s stated in the package insert of a drug they use after merely reading the manual. If the person suffers from the side effects for a whole day, it is perceived as the nocebo effect.

To put it simply, a placebo is a kind of brain self-deception and healing mechanism, whereas a nocebo works oppositely. People can help themselves through the placebo effect or experience discomfort through the nocebo effect. By observing the result of these two phenomena, we can see how powerful our minds can be.

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