The placebo effect is one of the strangest and least well understood aspects of human and animal biology. What’s undeniable is that it does exist – a person given a sugar pill will recover from mild colds and injuries up to twice as quickly, as well as some startling effects on more severe problems. It’s also true that the placebo effect can have some very bizarre effects that aren’t as well known:
- Even if told that the pill they are taking is a placebo, it can still have a measurable effect compared to taking no “medication”
- Placebos can inspire negative effects as well as positive effects – the “nocebo” effect
- Placebos can be targeted to certain symptoms – if told that the placebo will help with your toothache but not a bad knee, that’s likely what you will feel happen
- They will be more effective if presented as expensive and well-branded
- The placebo effect is significantly diminished or even completely lost if the subject is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease
And yet despite all of the above, the mechanism that causes the effect is still unknown. It’s true that the effect can cause measurable release of dopamine and other self-produced pain-relieving hormones. However it has been less well understood why the source of the pain itself doesn’t trigger the release of these chemicals, instead being reliant on the consumption of some kind of physical process
New research however may shed light on this bizarre aspect of an already strange phenomenon. Subliminally, the fact that an immune response requires energy means that in a difficult, winter environment, it is overall more beneficial to simply endure a minor infection. Or in human terms: “You’ve got a cold? It’s cold, get over yourself!” Get ill in the summer though and people are rushing for the medicine drawer: “Don’t waste the sunshine!”
So the link here is that the placebo effect needs a trigger. In Siberian hamsters, that trigger is sunlight, while in humans, it’s being told that you’re going to get better! Is this a consequence of greater communication in people, or some other reason – obviously this will inspire further research. It also seems that this validates to an extent the benefits of the traditional “couch-based” psychology.
Placebo pills have been shown to have measurable effects on ailments that are usually considered at least partly psychological – ranging from the extent of physical pain, to conditions including ADHA, some depression and neurological addictions (ie. gambling) and autism. Is it true that often, the act of prescribing, collecting and taking a pill is perhaps more significant to any healing process than the content of said pill?
Perhaps the placebo effect affecting physical conditions is more surprising – but then, the mechanism of physical conditions is often better understood as well. Some people might say that knowingly prescribing a “useless” pill for some very serious psychological ailments is immoral, but given the complexities of the human brain, we’re often not doing much more than taking an educated guess anyway. And I know about educated guesses – I play LOTS of poker!