With the discovery that the unconscious mind plays a key role in the placebo effect, researchers have identified a novel mechanism that helps explain the power of placebos and nocebos.
Much of medicine is based on what is considered the strongest possible evidence: The placebo-controlled trial. A paper published in the October 19 issue of Annals of Internal Medicine — entitled “What’s In Placebos: Who Knows?” calls into question this foundation upon which much of medicine rests, by showing that there is no standard behind the standard — no standard for the placebo.
Researchers are just starting to appreciate the power that the mind can have over the body, says Tor Wager, an assistant professor of psychology at Columbia University.
“An emerging idea right now is that belief in a placebo taps into processes in your brain that produce physical results that really shape how your body responds to things,” he says. “The brain has much more control over the body than we can voluntarily exert.”
As an example of this, Wager points to the body’s response to perceived threats.
“Say it’s late at night and everything is quiet and then suddenly you see someone outside, near a window,” he explains. “Your body starts to respond. Your pupils dilate. Your heart rate goes up. You start to sweat.”
The belief that something threatening is out there produces a host of physical responses that you have little control over. If you were told to calm down and turn off these sensations, you couldn’t, Wager says. “But if the belief changes — say, it turns out that it’s just your husband coming home — the physical response changes.”
The question, now, is how to tap into these powerful, unconscious responses, Wager says.
The placebo effect is a consciousness event, and more specifically an event in which consciousness and matter interact to change or transform a disease structure into a healing process or flow. At the level of reality at which this event takes place, it is not even possible to say that it is an interaction. This is a level at which consciousness-matter, or as it is more popularly known, mind-body, are not different but are a ‘stuff’, for want of a better word, which is not committed to either condition, yet is both