Placebos – Real or Not Real?

For many years the placebo effect has been misunderstood, dismissed and discredited.  The placebo effect refers to the phenomenon when a fake treatment, such as sugar or saline water, is given to a patient and produces a real response.  Scientists are just beginning to understand what creates this experience, but still can't say why some people respond to certain placebos and others are do not.  For the most part, the placebo effect is based on expectations.  If a person believes that she/he is going to benefit from a pill or treatment, then it is possible that the body’s own chemistry will respond with similar effects to what the medication or treatment might have caused. 

In his new book, Suggestible You, science writer Erik Vance takes us on a fascinating journey through the research, experiments and his own personal journey around placebos, suggestibility and hypnosis.  Erik infuses great humor into his stories of touring some of the world’s leading research facilities and using himself as a guinea pig.  Some highlights include: 

  • His story about getting (electrically) shocked to test his placebo response.  He learns very quickly how fast the placebo effect kicks in once he is feeling pain.  
  • His comparison of the brain to a sports arena.  Just as in the brain, at a sports arena there are many things happening all at once.  There are fans rooting for different teams…people eating, drinking, talking and applauding...some watching the game, while others are engaged in various other tasks.  However, whereas there are only about 67,000 people in the sports arena, there are about 85 billion cells in the brain.  It is all super fascinating and complex and we are just beginning to scratch the surface.  
  • The exposé around the process for pharmaceutical companies to get FDA approval, which involves four phases of research and can take up to 12 years and can cost up to 2.5 billion dollars.  The main obstacle drugs must surmount in order to receive approval is the effectiveness of the drugs must beat the placebo by 30%.  This can be extremely difficult and force drug companies to abandon drugs that might actually be effective.  In response, companies are no longer dismissing placebo and are now trying to better understand the effect, so they can more accurately test their drugs against it.  

In the field of hypnosis, this research gives us a lot to be excited about.  Although hypnosis and placebo are both based on suggestibility and expectation, they do function differently.  Whereas responsiveness to placebos changes from day to day, hypnotic susceptibility remains fairly stable throughout one's life.  Having the ability to be suggestible has nothing to do with our intelligence levels or loss of control.  It means that we can use our minds to change both how our bodies function, as well as how we experience the world around us.  The more we understand the placebo effect and the influence of suggestibility; the more choices we can have to create the experiences we desire.  Knowing how we are being influenced every day by external factors such as TV programs, news reports, advertisements or social media, allows us to choose what we focus on and begin to change our beliefs, so that we can expect the best possible outcomes for ourselves.   

As a hypnotist, I am interested in discovering how we can make positive changes in our lives.  For those that are open, interested and committed to making lasting change, hypnosis can be a powerful tool.  Hypnosis is not trickery, magic or manipulation.  It is simply a technique that helps you bypass the critical parts of your mind that keep you stuck in limiting beliefs.  Our minds can do amazing things when we BELIEVE that it’s possible.