The Power of Placebos

The mind is a powerful thing. For our latest week-long special report, we look at the placebo effect, deception, control, and the ever-mysterious mind-body connection.
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How do we know one wasn't a placebo? (Photo: nocturbulous/Flickr)

How do we know one wasn't a placebo? (Photo: nocturbulous/Flickr)

This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill—the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill—and, well, I don't really know. I'm not sure which pill is which, but one of them has an active ingredient and the other one doesn't. We'll check in with you after two weeks.

That's what Morpheus would have said to Neo in The Matrix IV: Clinical Trials.

You've heard of placebos. You know that they're dummy pills, a little hunk of sugar you get when your doctor thinks you complain too much or when they're testing a new drug. You might not know though, for instance, that most crosswalk buttons and "close door" buttons on elevators are placebos, too. They give the illusion of doing something when, in reality, you're just jabbing at a piece of metal for some peace of mind.

Placebos have been around for much of human civilization, from rain dances to randomized clinical trials. Still, people underestimate the humble sugar pill. We are continually discovering new, surprising ways that our expectations can become reality. Researchers have observed the placebo effect even for the amount of sleep you get, and even if you're told you are taking a fake drug.

Public perception of placebos trends negative—most people are pretty clueless about how they work or why we might use them. They tend to associate the placebo effect with gullibility, lack of control, and unethical deception. Never mind that some "placebo" treatments are proven to be effective, cost very little, and have minimal side effects. They also have important consequences outside the realm of medicine—from the pre-game rituals that help to win games to the way teachers' expectations affect students' achievement. Those who dismiss or ignore placebo effects run the risk of denying the way the world works; those who understand the placebo effect are finding ways to harness the power of the mind.

For this special report, we're telling stories of the mysterious mind-body connection and how a simple thought can become reality. You'll learn about how people get drunk off non-alcoholic beer and how the threat of a curse could stop your heart. You'll find out how things aren't what they seem—from luxury skin creams to higher education. You might even start believing that "mind over matter" is more than an empty aphorism—in some cases, it's an empirical fact.

Check back this week to learn more about the power of placebos. We're here to tell you you've been fooled. It's up to you to decide whether you're pleased with that or not.

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