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9 Amazing Examples of the Placebo Effect

The placebo effect is one of the most striking examples of how powerful the mind can influence the body. Medical professionals are just beginning to grasp the workings of the placebo.

Most often, the placebo effect is associated with the healing of an illness after taking dummy pills, when a person genuinely believed they were taking real medication. But placebos can influence the perception of pain, cold or heat sensations, blood pressure, taste receptors, and even trick the brain into thinking the body is dying.

Expensive Mineral Water… from the Tap
About 20 years ago in California, there was a trendy restaurant (which may still exist) where instead of wine, they started serving expensive brands of mineral water. One of the brands was called L’eau Du Robinet.

The “water menu” described that this water contained natural minerals and nutrients, that it was very fresh, delightful, rejuvenating, and perfect for beef and poultry.

When people bought this premium-class water, they drank it with great pleasure, admiring its taste and stating in reviews that this water was much tastier than ordinary water. And they had no idea that L’eau Du Robinet translated from French simply as “tap water.” And yes, it was just ordinary tap water.

Exercises without Exercise
Once Harvard scientists conducted an experiment among hotel chambermaids, dividing them into two groups. The first group was told that their usual daily work of cleaning rooms was equivalent to intense gym workouts. The second group was not told anything, just asked to work as usual.

After a month, doctors examined the chambermaids from both groups, and the women in the first group noted that their blood pressure had normalized, and there was weight loss, especially around the waist and hips. Interestingly, these chambermaids did not engage in any additional exercises besides their work.

The second group of chambermaids had the same indicators as at the time of the experiment.

No Pain
In the New England Journal of Medicine in 2002, the results of an experiment were published involving 180 patients diagnosed with knee osteoarthritis. They were promised effective treatment, divided into three random groups, and some patients underwent surgery or cleaning, while others received a placebo treatment.

For patients who didn’t know they weren’t actually being treated, the placebo looked quite “healing” – the doctor made small incisions on the knee joint and then sprayed something on the wounds (just saline solution, in fact).

The results surprised the scientists. When they checked the well-being of these patients, it turned out that those who received the placebo were the most “healed”; their knee joint pain had significantly decreased. And for those who underwent real surgeries or cleaning, the reduction in pain was not as significant.

Moreover, the operation for treating osteoarthritis in the USA cost up to $5,000 at that time, and the positive effect of pain reduction in patients who underwent the placebo procedure persisted even after two years.

Placebo Actually Reduces Pain Levels
If our brains can effectively alleviate physical pain without costly surgical interventions, imagine what other benefits we may discover in the future!

A few years ago, Professor Ted Kaptchuk from Harvard Medical School, who has long been studying the placebo effect, conducted an experiment on people suffering from lower back pain. He assigned real medication to half of the group, while the other half received placebo pills. People in the second group were immediately informed that they were only receiving a placebo.

After some time, the results showed that the group receiving real medication noticed a reduction in lower back pain of about 9%, while the group receiving the placebo (and knowing it!) reported a reduction in pain of about 30%.

Death from… Placebo Overdose
Our brains can make us believe that sugar pills are potent medication and can also imagine them as effective poisons, prompting the body to react accordingly.

In 2012, a report was published in the Smithsonian Journal about an attempted suicide using placebo pills. A man participating in testing new depression pills felt so bad one day that he decided to end his life by swallowing 26 of these antidepressant tablets. He had heard that overdosing on this drug was deadly.

However, he did not know that he belonged to the group receiving not real antidepressants but placebos, meaning just sugar pills. When he ingested 26 sugar pills at once, nothing terrible happened to him.

However, the man believed he was taking a potent drug, and his body reacted accordingly. His breathing became difficult, and his blood pressure dropped so low that he was near death.

Only in the hospital did the man find out that he was actually given a placebo. And he almost immediately felt better and soon fully recovered.

Such a “negative effect” of the placebo is often referred to by a separate term – nocebo.

Ability to Create Pain
Below is another example of the nocebo effect. Scientists from the University of Gottingen in Germany once gathered a group of patients suffering from bone pain.

They all were told that they would undergo a “test” involving bending their legs, but one group was told that they might experience more severe pain during this test, while the other group was not told anything about additional pain.

People from both groups were asked to perform a certain number of knee bends, but people from the first group quickly began to report feeling more pain and stopped bending their legs. People from the second group did not experience particularly severe pain and ended up doing more bends than the first group.

Knowledge of Placebo Does Not Diminish Its Effectiveness
In 2018, the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Massachusetts worked with patients who were being treated for the consequences of oncological diseases. In particular, for the feeling of severe fatigue.

The first group was not given any medication, while the second group received placebo pills. At the same time, the second group knew that they were receiving a placebo.

At the end of the experiment, it turned out that the fatigue of the first group remained at the same level as before the experiment, while the second group reported a “significant improvement.”

Placebo Provides a Sense of Intoxication Without Alcohol
In 2003, researchers Maryanne Garry and Sima L. Assefi from New Zealand conducted an experiment with 148 students who were invited to an auditorium to watch a documentary film and slides, and during the screening, they were given a tonic drink.

Half of the group was then informed that the tonic contained alcohol (vodka), while the other half was not told anything about alcohol. Immediately after the screening, they were all tested, asked to answer a series of questions about the film and slides they had watched.

It turned out that those who were convinced they had consumed tonic with vodka experienced corresponding memory difficulties, confused colors, and other details. Meanwhile, those who were sure they were drinking plain tonic answered normally.

The results of this experiment showed that if the brain believes that the body has consumed alcohol, it creates a feeling of intoxication (“placebo drunk effect”).

Placebo Can Overcome Allergies
In Japan, there is a tree called the lacquer tree (Toxicodendron vernicifluum), which contains urushiol, a substance highly toxic to human skin. The effect of touching its leaves will be approximately the same as that of poison ivy or poison sumac.

In 1962, Japanese doctors conducted an interesting experiment, asking 13 students to take a leaf from the lacquer tree in one hand and a harmless leaf from another tree in the other hand.

The leaves looked very similar, and the students were also told that in the bowl where the lacquer tree leaves were, there were safe leaves, and in the bowl with safe leaves were the toxic leaves of the lacquer tree.

As a result of the experiment, all 13 students developed a rash on the palm of the hand that touched the completely safe leaves. And 11 out of 13 students had undamaged fingers that touched the real lacquer tree leaves. Only two students developed an allergic rash on their hands.

This demonstrates that even allergies and increased skin sensitivity can be nullified by our brains, which is a mind-boggling concept reminiscent of “There is no spoon” from “The Matrix.”

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