I’ve written before about the importance of storytelling in the doctor’s office.

The stories a patient tells himself are important as well and new research shows the role placebos play in this storytelling process.

In the past, placebos worked because the patient didn’t know he or she was taking a placebo. Healing through deception, in a sense.

But new research indicates that placebos work even if the patient knows it’s a placebo. Say what?

It seems counter-intuitive, but apparently the ritual of taking a pill and going through the motions of  getting a glass of water, opening the bottle, swallowing the pill, etc. triggers a self-healing mechanism inside the body.

We’re also discovering that the power of narrative is embedded deeply in our physiology. Perhaps that’s not surprising. In the long centuries before doctors discovered antibiotics, they often had little else but an observant eye, a listening ear, and a bag of nostrums with names like decoction of barley and compound infusion of roses to offer their desperately ill patients.
Our study points to something that a number of people have suspected, but has been hard to demonstrate under controlled conditions: We have the capacity for healing physical conditions through psychological means. First, we have to accept that. Studies of placebo effects are great demonstrations of it.
This award-winning article in Wired about placebos is also worth reading.
Ironically, Big Pharma’s attempt to dominate the central nervous system has ended up revealing how powerful the brain really is. The placebo response doesn’t care if the catalyst for healing is a triumph of pharmacology, a compassionate therapist, or a syringe of salt water. All it requires is a reasonable expectation of getting better. That’s potent medicine.

Potent indeed. One could also reflect on how this indicates the power of ritual in general. But instead of reflecting on that I’m instead wondering if the placebo effect could work with, say, my cars. If I pretend my 1995 Dodge Neon is a 2011 Mini Cooper placebo will it run more reliably and stylishly? :D


Filed under: Stories/Storytelling


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