Having run a clinical trials group in the 1990s, I have long been aware of the phenomenon of the placebo effect: how ingesting a sugar pill (or an equivalent neutral substance) with absolutely no scientifically demonstrated efficacy can have a measurable impact on physical and mental health. A metanalysis was recently published in the November 2009 issue of the Journal of Affective Disorders, reviewing the results of numerous studies conducted over the past few years on the placebo effect. The rather astounding conclusion of the study was that the strength of the placebo effect has DOUBLED over the past 10 years. In other words, if for example 10% of people in the control leg of a study conducted in 1999 reported relief of symptoms by taking a placebo, 20% of people reported relief in 2009.

The recognition of the reality of the placebo effect was in and of itself challenging to traditional medical thinking. It demonstrated conclusively that people’s thoughts impacted their physical well-being: if someone merely THOUGHT they were ingesting a therapeutic substance, there was a certain probability that it would have beneficial effects, whether or not it contained any “proven effective” ingredients.

An article by Olivia Judson in the May 4, 2010 New York Times notes another fascinating angle to the placebo phenomenon: “Placebo treatments are more powerful if your doctor believes in them. They are also more powerful if the doctor tells you so. In one study, for example, patients who had just come out of surgery were given a saline infusion, and — whenever they asked for it — the pain killer buprenorphine. However, some patients were told the saline infusion was a powerful painkiller, others that it might be one, while a third group wasn’t told anything. Over the course of three days, those in the “know-nothing” group asked for more buprenorphine than those in the “maybe” group, who in turn asked for more than those told they were getting a real drug.”

As a former advertising executive, I have to believe that he doubling of the placebo effect’s power is directly attributable to the explosion of pharmaceutical advertising in the past decade. We are now bombarded with messages that there are medications that can effectively treat literally hundreds of conditions, many of which the layperson was unaware until recently. So now, when a participant in the placebo leg of a clinical trial is given a pill, it’s quite natural for that person to assume that it must be having SOME effect.

The relevant conclusion that emerges for me: Since how you THINK you should feel dictates at least to some degree how you actually DO feel, it’s worth investing time and energy in training one’s mind to think along more positive lines, and to be more careful in filtering out the unwanted messages of the culture we’re immersed in. For ideas on how to train your mind to think more positively, see my blog: “Choosing Your Thoughts“. As for filtering the unwanted messages, pay attention to how much “news” you’re ingesting, as well as to how many commercials you’re watching.  Unfortunately, much of the “news” is focused on the negative (messages of attack by one party against another, and messages designed to engender a level of fear so that you will turn back to the news frequently to monitor the latest developments), and many of the commercial messages being broadcast are designed to heighten anxiety so that the advertiser’s product will be purchased as the solution to the anxiety-producing problem (notice how often the words “control” appear in ads).

Be vigilant about what kind of thoughts you allow to be aimed at you, and about what kinds of thoughts you dwell on. These thoughts have more power than you may realize!