The placebo effect is where measurable or felt improvements in health are observed following an inactive treatment (for example, giving a patient a sugar pill in place of a pharmacologically active medicine). Sometimes these changes are attributed to patients reporting improvements out of politeness due to the research setting, or because the condition would most likely have improved in the time frame anyway. However these explanations certainly don’t apply in all cases.
A widespread explanation for the placebo effect is that expectation determines (to a certain extent) the outcome of a treatment. Clearly, not everyone who has a positive expectation will improve while everyone who has a negative expectation will stay the same or get worse. There are obviously factors relating to the severity of the condition and the appropriateness and effectiveness of a treatment. However, all other things being equal, expectation seems to have an impact on outcome.
During my days as a psychology student, I was fascinated by hypnotism, the effects of suggestion and the factors that influence suggestibility.
Imagine biting into a slice of lemon, make the experience seem as real as possible. Imagine the citrus smell, the sensation of the flesh against your teeth and the sourness on your taste buds. If you have any imagination at all, this will most likely make you salivate. The very suggestion of the lemon creates a genuine physical reaction (you didn’t just imagine the saliva).
If someone tells you that you will feel like you are being pulled over backwards, you may feel like you are falling over. Some people will immediately fall on the floor while others won’t even feel the slightest pull. So what makes one person fall over while another won’t? The simple answer is that one person is more ‘suggestible’ than another, but this is an oversimplification. The likelihood of someone responding to a suggestion like this will depend on a number of factors, such as:
- how convincing is the suggestion?
- is the subject predisposed to believe that they might do this sort of thing?
- does the subject trust the person giving the suggestion?
- will the subject be judged well or badly for responding to the suggestion?
- is the subject in a heightened emotional state or very relaxed?
In the right circumstances people can respond to suggestions that they will develop a toothache, not feel pain in an ice cold bath and many other effects. This just scratches the surface of what is possible through suggestion and hypnosis.
These kinds of scenarios, where an idea causes a physical response, are the same as the placebo effect (and its evil twin, the nocebo effect). Some placebos are more effective than others. For example, the shape and colour of placebo pills determines their effectiveness, and placebo injections are more effective than placebo pills.
So what does all of this mean? Essentially, the more you believe something will help, the more helpful it is likely to be. The more ‘suggestible’ you are, the more you can benefit from suggestions.
This reminds me of something often said about the Law of Attraction. In case you haven’t come across the idea, it states that by focusing your thoughts on something (usually the example given is a great big pile of money, sadly), you will attract it into your life. Now, I don’t know if this is true, but I do know that once you start thinking about something, you see references to it everywhere. This is because there are just too many things going on in the world to pay attention to all of them, so what you see or hear is filtered by your brain/mind according to what it thinks you will be interested in. This means that by paying attention to something you want to ‘attract’, you will see more opportunities to bring it into your life. That’s not to say there isn’t more going on, but this is most likely at least part of the mechanism.
Apparently if you believe in the process it will work better than if you don’t (when it might not work at all). Again, the stronger the belief, the stronger the effect. I’m sure you can come up with some compelling reasons why this might be the case (like being more likely to seize opportunities that you notice, for example).
Another factor here is limiting beliefs. As long as you don’t believe something will work, or that you can’t do something, this will affect your success. As a mundane example, I play the piano, reasonably well but certainly not well enough to be a concert pianist. The belief that I’m not and never will be that good has no doubt prevented me from putting in the long hours necessary to reach that standard.
Similarly, Damo (my qigong teacher) recently said that overcoming any doubts he may have had made qi transmission much easier. Surely the same can be said for any internal practice.
In the value of skepticism I said that all of us are wrong about lots of things that we believe, and that we should maintain a healthy degree of skepticism about everything to avoid becoming attached to false beliefs. But some beliefs (whether true or false) are beneficial. Some beliefs that are initially untrue become true simply by believing them, like the placebo or the toothache. So why not choose our beliefs based less on whether they are likely to be right or wrong, but on how beneficial they are? We’re still going to be wrong a lot of the time anyway… (I recognise that this idea will incense a lot of scientifically minded types, but it’s a fun thought to play with).
Ultimately, this all boils down to one point: Your consciousness determines your reality (at least to a certain extent). Your intentions, beliefs and expectations affect what you perceive, experience and act on. What’s more, you have some degree of control over those things. So why not choose to have a positive outlook, choose to accept beliefs that empower you, and enjoy the health and happiness that can follow?