Our mind could be a more active healing force than the drugs we are prescribed, researchers have discovered this week.
Researchers made the discovery when they researched the ‘placebo effect’, a standard procedure in drugs research where the patient is given a ‘sugar pill’ instead of the drug, but is not told what he’s been given. The placebo is supposed to eliminate the possibility of positive thinking, and so any beneficial effect beyond that must be down to the drug itself.
But researchers from Harvard Medical School wanted to know if the placebo effect still worked when the patient knows he is taking a useless sugar pill. To find out, they gave placebo pills to 40 IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) patients, while another 40 were given nothing at all. The placebo group was told the tablets were sugar pills, and even the container had the word ‘placebo’ printed on it.
Yet after three weeks, 59 per cent of the placebo reported a significant improvement in their symptoms compared with 35 per cent of those who were not given the placebo. In other words, nearly double the number who took a placebo improved – and to an extent that was equivalent to that expected from a powerful IBS drug.
Researcher Ted Kaptchuk was baffled by the results, but thinks the placebo effect has more to do with medical ritual than merely positive thinking – even when the brain knows it is being deceived.
(Source: PLoS ONE, 2010; 5: e15591).