Why the Spooky Placebo Effect Still Baffles Scientists

Why the Spooky Placebo Effect Still Baffles Scientists
Why the Spooky Placebo Effect Still Baffles Scientists

The reasons why the placebo effect is so effective still baffles scientists, particularly since these effects are growing bigger over time


Scientists researching pain at McGill University uncovered an unexpected increase in the power of the placebo effect and released a paper describing this in 2015. Jeffrey Mogil, a spokesperson for the study, explains how understanding the placebo effect is elusive for scientists, as “It’s at the precise interface of biology and psychology.” In other words, it exists in the gray area between the power of the mind and the power of the body to heal itself.

Study after study has shown that, over time, the placebo effect is growing in effectiveness, meaning that fewer new pain medications are passing double-blind placebo control trials.

Double-blind placebo control trials are considered the most superior way to test the efficiency of any drug entering the marketplace. Both the clinical trial candidate and the doctor remain unaware as to whether or not a placebo, or the test medication, is being administered.

For example, in 1993, when compared to patients receiving a placebo, patients who received a genuine pain medication during a clinical trial were 27% more like to report a reduction in pain. Fast forward to 2013, and the percentage has reduced dramatically to 9%.  And it is not just pain medications that are failing double-blind placebo control trials. The same results are affecting testing of antipsychotic and antidepressant drugs.




Placebo effect has worked since the dawn of time

Throughout all of history, physicians and healers have either knowingly or unknowingly successfully cured patients with placebos. In Latin, the word placebo means “I shall please.” This suggests that the effects are a little more than merely duping a patient to full health. And the historical usage of placebos indeed hints at the reason behind their success.

A 16th-century French barber surgeon named Ambroise Paré made a telling observation about the core purpose of medicine. Paré explained that a doctor’s duty is to “cure occasionally, relieve often, console always.” Additionally, Paré was a strict adherent to the scientific method. However, he knew when placebos would be effective. Later in the late 18th century, an English doctor by the name of John Haygath became the first to conduct a scientific test on the placebo effect.

Haygath published a book called On the Imagination as a Cause and as a Cure of Disorders of the Body.




Why the Spooky Placebo Effect Still Baffles Scientists
Why the Spooky Placebo Effect Still Baffles Scientists


In his book he which explained how he conducted his placebo test. During his time, doctors were fond of a medical treatment they referred to as Perkins Tractors.

They believed that a metal pointer was capable of drawing a disease out of a patient. These instruments were expensive, and Haygath was able to demonstrate the same effectiveness with dummy wooden versions. He felt convinced that the power of the imagination was essential to curing disease.


Family of placebo effects

Placebo effects are more than merely an illusion or a trick of the mind. Further studies into the phenomenon suggest that its healing power entails more than just chemical responses to locations within our bodies.

And interestingly, the phenomenon is not merely associated with the likes of sugar pills. Placebo surgeries have also shown to cure chronic pain. Additionally, the Placebo effect has shown up in dieting and fitness. Essentially, any area of wellness associated with the way the mind perceives pain and emotion.

Therefore, there are many different expressions of the placebo effect. Scientists, neurologists, and psychologists have so far come up with the following theories:


“Regression to mean”

The idea that ultimately time heals all wounds, and that pain inevitably subsides regardless of medication or placebos.