There is an unspoken detente between ‘serious’ doctors and those who promote harmless but essentially ineffective treatments such as homeopathy.
While your Kaiser Permanente doctor might roll her eyes and tell you that the homeopathic drops you’re taking won’t do any harm, in all likelihood she’s really thinking two things. One, that you are a sucker. And two, that if you really believe these things work, your health might improve.
Because placebos actually work.
Sure, you tell yourself that you already know this.
But have you stopped to think about the actual magnitude of the placebo effect on modern culture? When you consider health and weight loss supplements, homeopathy, naturopathy, fringe treatments of all sorts, and much of modern medicine, placebos are probably responsible for a huge percentage of the betterment of modern man.
In a sense, advertising can be considered an outgrowth of the placebo effect; do you really believe that Axe Body Spray will make you more attractive to the opposite sex? You say no, but the sales figures say yes.
It seems counter intuitive. But medicine that has been explicitly designed to have no effect whatsoever can be shown through double blind testing (think about that for one moment), to positively influence a patient’s outcome under the right circumstances.
Harvard Medical School even has an entire Program in Placebo Studies, founded in 2011. You can get a degree in placebo technology.
It is important to distinguish the very respectable, conscious use of placebos. The effect of placebos has been shown by randomized controlled trials to be very large. Their use in the correct place is to be encouraged […] —Archie Cochrane.
What this underscores is that the brain has a lot to do with the state of your health. And belief is an important component of this. If you believe that you will get better, your outcome will improve. However there are certainly limitations, and the amount of improvement that your brain’s belief system can provide vary with regard to individual and the nature of your disease. It won’t do much for your leprosy, for example.
Furthermore, much of the placebo effect seems to be art rather than a science.
For instance, it has been shown that a doctor’s positive, pleasant demeanor can improve the placebo effect by as much as 20%. And the patient’s attitude toward modern medicine will also play an important role.
Some studies have found that the type of pill has an effect and also the price. If you pay more for your placebo your brain apparently believes that it is more powerful. Which is probably the only viable excuse for the high price of homeopathic medications!
However, there are two important points to consider: Do you want your doctor lying to you, even if it might improve your health? And secondly, if you know about the placebo effect, does it simply disappear?
If we have ruined your ability to help yourself get better through the irrationality of your own belief system, we apologize.
But think for a moment, if you believe that the placebo effect is only the result of your own belief system, then what’s stopping you from getting better without resorting to those homeopathic remedies?