“Suggestible You” is the title of a book by Erik Vance. The subtitle is “The Curious Science of Your Brain’s Ability to Deceive, Transform, and Heal. This book is about the placebo response and related phenomena. One of HM’s pet peeves is the expression,”It’s just a placebo response.” For HM, the placebo response is the most interesting effect in medicine.
Artificial intelligence pioneer Daniel Dennet has written. “A mind is fundamentally an anticipator, an expectation-generator.” Expectation is a system of shortcuts our brains have developed to get through the day. Otherwise we would be stopping every few seconds to figure things out. Consequently if what you anticipate is negative your mind will make things look (or feel) worse than they actually are. However, if you expect the best some amazing things can happen in your body. Somewhere between this expectation and reality lies the mind’s power to heal itself. Erik Vance writes, “Our uncanny ability to deceive ourselves has startling implications for our health and well-being… Everyone’s door to expectation has a different key, and everyone is susceptible in a slightly different way. But once that door is unlocked we have access to an amazing power to heal ourselves.”
Placebo comes from the Latin for “I shall please,” and traditionally refers to anything inert that has an effect on a patient. Vance writes, “…usually lasting less than a day but sometimes longer: a sugar pill, a saline injection, or sham surgery, often mixed with a little smoke and mirrors. In other words, nothing. But in the world of expectation, sometimes nothing is more powerful than something—if it’s wrapped in the right packaging.”
Vance writes that this packaging is different for everybody. What allows a placebo to work is a topic of continuing research, the most recent of which is presented in his book. It involves psychology, chemistry, and genetics, aided by the power of storytelling. The manner in which the placebo is presented is important, which does not necessarily involve deception. Placebos can be effective even when the recipient knows that it is a placebo.
Vance writes of the importance of theater or how the placebo is presented and to individual differences. For example, depression patients respond better to yellow placebo pills than to blue ones. Bigger ones work better than smaller ones, but only to a certain point. Bear this in mind should you purchase placebo pills on Amazon, and there is a wide variety of placebos available on Amazon. Fake injections work better than fake pills. Vance goes on to note that “if you’re French, suppositories work better than either. Take a quiet moment to ponder the significance of that.”
Placebos are a very complex topic, so a series of posts will be required, which shall follow immediately.