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  • Mark Brafield

The placebo effect

A BBC Horizon programme* recently conducted a wide-ranging experiment to test the placebo effect. The results were extraordinary.

We all know what the placebo effect is; the doctor gives you a pill which contains no medicine, but because you have faith in the treatment, you get better. But the interesting thing is that, due to his code of professional ethics, the doctor has to tell you that the pill is fake (or, at least, that it could be fake).

It is this aspect of 'fakery' that catches the public imagination, and whenever a discussion of hypnosis comes up, the placebo effect is mentioned, as if the whole thing was a fake, a con-trick or a cheat.

But here we must make a distinction. Whilst the doctor's pill might have been a fake, the results most definitely were not.

The doctor took a sample of 117 people who had suffered from chronic back pain for years, sometimes so severely that they were virtually immobilised. These included Jim, confined to a wheelchair and who had had to give up his love of messing about on boats, and Moira, a red-hot poker player who was now confined to a chair in her home, playing it online, because she could not get to the local casino.

All of the volunteers were given placebo pills (albeit carefully designed to look as medically convincing as possible). However, the volunteers were told that half of the group would be given the placebo pills, and half of them would be given a powerful new painkilling drug. Crucially, they did not know which half they were in (although, as I say, all of them, in fact, received the placebo).

At the end of three weeks, an astonishing 45% had demonstrated a significant improvement in their conditions. Jim was now able to get out of his chair, and we saw him steering a longboat along a canal. He looked years younger, he was smiling, the lines of his face were softened and his eyes were sparkling. Meanwhile, Moira had got out of her chair, left home for the first time in years and was scooping up her winnings at the casino.

Another patient decided to give up his morphine prescription because the new 'wonder drug' was so much more effective.

The 'successful' patients understandably felt a little embarrassed, but the doctor was quick to reassure them that just because they had reacted successfully to a placebo did not mean that they were stupid or had been fools. During the programme, leading scientists confirmed that whilst the pills might have been fake, the 'placebo effect' was a real and scientifically measurable outcome. The patients suffered from real pain. Their relief from pain was equally real, and - crucially - the body's internal systems had really produced pain-killing endorphins that were equivalent to them being injected with opioids.

And as if that were not remarkable enough, the placebo effect continued even after the 'successful' patients knew that they were taking a fake pill. The bodies' natural resources now associated the pill with the release of pain-killing endorphins and did the rest by themselves.

You can probably see where this is leading. When you go to see a magician, you know that the effect he creates is an illusion. However, if you take a placebo, even if you know it is a placebo, it is a genuine way of engaging the mind's natural resources in such a way as to use them in the focused and powerful way that they are meant to be used, but which remain dormant for much of our lives. To continue the analogy, when the magician appears to saw a woman in half, she is - obviously - not actually sawn in half. On the other hand, when you respond to a placebo treatment, the chemicals produced by your body are real, and the reduction in pain is equally real. Just as real, in fact, as Jim's smile.

* Horizon - The Placebo Experiment; Can my brain cure my body ? First shown on BBC 2 on 4 October 2018

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