This article explains what we know about how the placebo effect works based, mostly, on evidenced-based research done in the last half century. First we will provide an overview of the ingredients involved in the placebo effect, then we describe each ingredient individually. Finally we put the ingredients together and explain how they influence a placebo effect.
The Placebo Effect: Observations, Interpretations, and Actions
A long glance at placebo effect research shows that researchers have a difficult time explaining how the placebo effect works. They know that it works, but there is ongoing disagreement about how it works. Depending on their training, placebo researchers may talk about selective perception, conditioning, genetics, or other factors that seem to be creating a placebo effect. But until now, there hasn’t been a uniform theory about how the placebo effect works.
Part of our work at the Placebo Research Center has been to create a simple theory for the placebo effect that can be uniformly validated by placebo studies. This is our theory:
A placebo effect – which we define as positive transformation occurring without traditional medical intervention – works when our observations, interpretations, and actions reinforce a positive result we wish to see in our lives.
Observations: The Seed of a Placebo Effect
The seed of how the placebo effect works lies in the way we observe the world. Observations are anything people consciously or unconsciously perceive through their five senses (or, some would argue, through a sixth sense as well).
Most of our observations don’t exist at a conscious level. There’s an overload of sensory information in the world, and to consciously analyze all of it would be impossible. It is believed that the subconscious brain can simultaneously compute up to one million stimuli at a time! So we go about our daily lives with our human supercomputers observing, interpreting, and acting on mountains of information – most of which we are unaware of.
If a person wants to create a placebo effect that will help in the healing of a cold, for instance, they must change their scenery and consciously observe something they interpret as aiding in their health – perhaps a doctor, a homeopathic remedy, a run, or anything else they believe works.
Interpretations: The Trunk and Branches of Placebo Effect
The trunk and branches of how the placebo effect works lies in how we interpret the observations we make in the world. We define interpretations as thoughts and emotions – or beliefs. Our interpretations of the world represent the bulk of our mental experience – as most of us don’t sit and observe quietly with a blank mind, rather we create thoughts and emotions that we attach to the of the observations we choose to pay attention to in the world.
Our interpretations are often patterned – they are how we see the world, and the patterned interpretations we make can last a lifetime. What we don’t realize is that biology and physics teach us that how we see the world – whether we choose to smile or frown when we fall, for instance – has enormous consequences on the health of our bodies and, also, the quality of our experience.
Our interpretations, alone, drive the observations we seek out, and the way we choose to act in the world (how we treat ourselves and others). Thus, a strong placebo effect happens when we consciously interpret whatever we observe or do in the world as aligning in a way that supports the positive transformation we wish to see in the world. And
Actions: The Fruit of the Placebo Effect
The fruit of how the placebo effect works is our actions. Our actions are the, usually, ritualized behaviors that we engage in to either reinforce the positive change we wish to see in our lives, or negate it.
We do not take any action at all without that action being reinforced by our beliefs (interpretations of observations) about the world. Eating, sleeping, going to work, sex, friends – everything we do is done because we believe – either consciously or unconsciously – that it is the most important thing we can be doing.
Actions are essential for the placebo effect because eliciting positive transformation requires not just that we observe and interpret the world, but rather that we create actions that reinforce those observations and interpretations. If we wish to create a placebo effect in our lives, then we must choose ritualized actions that reinforce over and over again the change we wish to see.
Putting it All Together: How the Placebo Effect Works
A placebo effect is positive transformation that can occur in our lives when our observations, interpretations, and actions are aligned to reinforce the change we want. People experience amazing recoveries when taking placebos that have no active chemical because they are observing help from a health professional, interpreting their prescription as a healing prescription, and repeating the ritual (action) of taking that prescription. The combination of these experiences creates a placebo effect that influences the body to create enormous change within.
The opportunity with the placebo effect is to figure out how to support people in creating placebo effects in the areas of life they want to change. We can do this by helping people to bring relevant observations, interpretations, and actions to consciousness, so they can choose the change they want in their lives. The Placebo Research Center is hard at work on exactly this opportunity.