The Power of Placebos

Let’s talk about placebos – fake medical treatments that are used to analyze the efficacy of real treatments. But the interesting thing about placebos is that even though they aren’t real medical treatments, they can have a real effect on patients who receive them.

Sometimes the effect is negative, but often it’s positive. For example, people taking a placebo might experience the side effects that generally come with a particular medication. On the other hand, they might begin to feel better and even become better as a result.

One of the odd things about placebos is that they can even be effective when people know they’re taking a placebo. Because of ethical concerns, the dispensation of placebos has gotten a bit complicated, but some studies have allowed for giving patients placebos in addition to their regular medication and telling patients that even though the placebos do not contain active ingredients, they might feel some relief from taking them.

And then, surprisingly, a number of people do feel better. One would think the mind would inform the body that the “treatment” these people are receiving is nothing – a sugar pill or colored water – but the subconscious mind doesn’t work that way.

Instead, the mind somehow decides to manipulate the body to achieve the result the mind wants. It’s sort of like the power of positive thinking. And it can be good or bad. If a person takes a placebo to cure cancer, more than likely, the person is going to die. If, however, the person takes a placebo to fight depression, there’s a good chance the person will be helped just as much by the placebo as by antidepressants.

And the placebo effect isn’t just a medical phenomenon. It works in other ways too. For example, many (if not most) office thermostats are fake. Yet people feel better when they can “adjust” the thermostat in their office. Also, the “Close” button on most elevators doesn’t actually speed up the process of closing the doors. Yet people feel better when they’re allowed to press the button. They feel like the doors close faster.

Prayer may be another placebo. We pray for someone who becomes ill and the person recovers, making us believe our prayers had something to do with it. And perhaps they did, even if the person didn’t know we were saying a prayer for his/her benefit.

More likely, however, is that the placebo effect was at work, either on the patient or on the person doing the praying. If the patient knows about the prayers, that can serve as a motivator to get well. Depending on the nature of the illness, a placebo might be enough to bring about real healing.

If the patient doesn’t know about the prayers, then the healing might just be coincidence. Certainly the person praying believes in the power of prayer and attributes the healing to the prayer while making excuses if the prayers don’t work. “I didn’t pray hard enough” or “God said: No” or “the Lord works in mysterious ways.”

Many studies have been done on the power of prayer and almost all of them show that prayer is no more effective on healing than the rising of the moon. Yet people still believe. Why? Maybe because prayer is like meditation. It provokes a relaxation response in the body, whereby stress levels are reduced.

What does all this mean?

I think we should be happy our minds are strong enough to allow us to heal ourselves by many different methodologies. We can’t cure ourselves of everything, of course. And sometimes, prayers and placebos are downright harmful – such as when people rely on them too heavily, to the exclusion of more efficacious treatments.

But they have their place. So if you derive benefits from prayers or placebos, by all means: carry on.

Posted in


Recent Posts