Placebo Effect

Magic of Placebo

The above image was made to support a Canadian Broadcasting Company weekly show called The Nature of Things which was also broadcast in the U.S on National Public Radio. The placebo effect is part of the human stress response system and works based upon emotionally conditioned expectations (perceptual biases). The perceptual biases from our social/spiritual network should also exhibit the placebo effect but no studies of that have yet been done. The placebo effect is also known as confirmation bias.

Placebo as a medical pill
While the placebo effect and thus emotion magic have power they are not all powerful. They cannot heal everything. They are only effective for problems which are a part of the human stress response. The stress response releases powerful body affecting chemicals.

Placebo Healing

(July 6, 2022) The word “placebo” means “I shall please” and it derives from the Latin verb “ placere ” meaning “to please.” Due to the effectiveness of placebos all new medical drugs are tested against placebos as a test of material effectiveness. Only if a new drug is statistically better than the placebo effect is it considered to be “effective” in a material sense although the placebo effect is often quite effective in its own right.

A now classic example of the placebo is its effect on the irritable bowel syndrome. Drug studies involving the drug Alosetron showed that 51% of patients treated with Alosetron had adequate relief as compared to 38% of patients treated with placebo (Kaptchuk and all 2010a). A 38% success rate is still very significant. The drug only added another 13% to patient relief meaning that the placebo effect is the main healing mechanism.

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Placebo healing works best in loving, stress reducing environment. This is because those environments tend to inhibit the triggering of emotionally negative responses and this allows expectations to work with maximum effectiveness. Specifically, the type of support required for maximum placebo healing is listed below (Brody & Brody 2000, page 84):

  1. The individual is listened to and receives an explanation for the illness that makes sense.

  2. The individual feels care and concern being expressed by the healer and others in the environment.

  3. The individual feels an enhanced sense of mastery or control over the illness or its symptoms.

If the pre-frontal cortex is impaired as it often is in Parkenson's disease then the placebo effect is also impaired (Benedetti and all 2011).


Benedetti, F., Carlino. E., Pollo, A. (2011) Neuropsychopharmacology Reviews 36, 339–354 doi: 10.1038/npp.2010.81
Brody H., & Brody, D. (2000) The Placebo Response, How You Can Release the Body’s Inner Pharmacy for Better Health. HarperCollins, New York, page 84
Kaptchuk, T.J., Friedlander, E., Kelley, J.M., Sanchez, M.N., Kokkotou, E., et al. (2010) Placebos without Deception: A Randomized Controlled Trial in Irritable Bowel Syndrome. PLoS ONE 5(12): e15591. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0015591
Emotional conditioning is automatic and occurs even in infants and animals
Emotional conditioning is automatic and occurs even in infants and animals. The Placebo Effect is based upon emotional conditioning and not upon willful belief.

Placebo Expectations are Due to Emotional Conditioning, not Willful Beliefs

(July 6, 2022) Amazingly, placebo pills will even work if a doctor tells a patient to take pills which are labeled “placebo” and told they “are like sugar pills.” This is clear evidence that deep emotional conditioning is at work and not the strength of a belief. We modern humans are conditioned to view pills as effective. In one three week study of 80 people (70% of them women) having irritable bowel symptoms, 59% reported adequate symptom relief after taking these sort of placebo pills compared to 35% who did not take any pills yet who experienced the same caring environment. (Kaptchuk and all 2010b). This result is slightly better than the tests with the approved medicine Alosetron! The authors of this study suspect the reason for this lies in the supportive healer – patient relationship which this experiment deliberately provided.​

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Recent studies suggest that the placebo effect is most effective for patient complaints subject to stress effects (Miller & all 2009). This is confirmed by another recent study showing that the healer’s interaction with the patient seems to be the most important factor in the placebo response for smoking, dementia, depression, obesity, hypertension, insomnia and anxiety. Resistant to healer interaction strategies but still affected by placebos were patient reported pain and nausea (Hróbjartsson, & Gotzsche 2010).​

The body’s stress response is turning out to be pervasively involved with all sorts of control loops involving the brain including those which involve the immune system. Upon the initial experience of stress, the brain will cause the adrenal glands to secrete glucocorticoid chemicals which enhance the immune system so it can better counter potential injuries. But, if the stress continues for an hour or more the effectiveness of the immune system begins to decline back towards normal. If the stress continues for a day or longer then the effectiveness of the immune system declines to 40% to 70% of normal. This makes the body more susceptible to infections and cancers. The immune system needs to decline in effectiveness in order to prevent its long term activation from attacking a person’s own body tissues and causing autoimmune diseases (Sapolsky 2004, page 154). Still long term stress increases the odds of autoimmune diseases.

Because some types of cancers are more sensitive than others on the state of the immune system, reports do exist of placebos suppressing cancers. The classic case is a 1957 report by psychologist Bruno Klopfer in which injections of sterile water were used to reduce otherwise untreatable lymph cancer under the pretense that it was a new experimental drug then in the news. This shrunk the tumors significantly until the patient read in the news that this drug was ineffective at which time the tumors grew again and the patient died (Brody 2000, page 2).​

Placebo effects are not limited to humans but work for any creature with some level of consciousness, even a mouse. This was demonstrated in 1982 in a strain of mice which have an autoimmune disease similar to lupus. In this experiment, the first group of mice were given the standard medical treatment drug, cyclophosphamide at an under dosed weekly rate which lead to early death. The second group received the artificial sweetener, saccharin, weekly as a placebo unpaired with the medicine. The third group of mice received their doses of medicine only every other week in a deliberate further under dosing but this group had its medicine paired with saccharin which formed a conditioned pairing. Yet the saccharin was given in the week when the medicine was not given. This last group survived longer than the first weekly medicated group and both survived longer than the saccharine only control group (reported in Ader 1997). Why placebo group did better than the fully medicated group is unknown but perhaps the medicine had some unknown bad side effects on these mice.​

In a similar experiment a few years later the placebo, even when used alone after the conditioning was learned, still had an effect until the conditioning wore off from repeated use without reinforcement. Mice conditioned by a medicine and saccharin pairing for 2.5 months were divided into three groups. One group continued to receive the pairing, another got the placebo paired with a saline injection, and the last group received nothing. The first two groups had equal survivability rates even though the second group was no longer getting the medicine. The third group died early.​

This sort placebo conditioning has been demonstrated in humans and it occurs when placebo pills are taken after effective medical pills like aspirin. The placebo pills become just as effective as the aspirin for a period of time. Initially aspirin is more effective than a sugar pill but after a successful conditioned pairing the placebo pills became just as effective as the aspirin. It has also been used in a few individual human cases to avoid the toxic effects of certain medicines. All of those had successful results (reported in Ader 1997).


Ader, R. (1997) The Role of Conditioning in Pharmacotherapy, in The Placebo Effect edited by Anne Harrington, Harvard University Press
Brody H., & Brody, D. (2000) The Placebo Response, How You Can Release the Body’s Inner Pharmacy for Better Health. HarperCollins, New York, page 84
Miller, F.G. Colloca, L. & Kaptchuk, T.J. (2009) The placebo effect: illness and interpersonal healing. Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 52: 518–39
Sapolsky, R.M. (2004) Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers. Henry Holt and Co., New York, page 154
brain regions involved in conscious tactile pain perception
These are the brain regions involved in conscious tactile pain perception. The thalamus unmasks the relevant tactile centers under the expectation control of the pre-frontal cortex. If the unmasking is strong enough then neural noise becomes like a sensory neural signal. In the case of nocebos, this expectation affects the stress response putting the patient into circulatory shock which is a condition of low blood pressure which can lead to death.

Placebo Cursing and Death - the Nocebo Effect

(July 6, 2022) Placebos which cause negative responses are called nocebos. One example due to emotional conditioning is the aggravation of asthma. In one experiment 47.5% of asthmatics had their condition worsened when told they were inhaling irritants when in fact they were only exposed to a nebulized saline solution. These same asthmatics were cured when told the same saline solutions were medicine (Hahn (1997).​

Another example is that people will feel drunk and exhibit the effects of being drunk when they think they are drinking alcohol when they really are not. In this experiment, a group of college students were fooled into thinking they were drinking. They had nearly the same poor reaction as real drunks on the classic drunk test like walking a line, memory testing, and trying to catch a ruler dropped though their fingers. At the end of the experiment when they were told of the trick they sobered up immediately after laughing about it (Wiseman 2009, p 202).

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Can nocebos cause death? Apparently so. Walter Cannon, a Harvard Medical School professor, wrote a compelling analysis in 1942. He started out his paper with:

In records of anthropologists and others who have lived with primitive people in widely scattered parts of the world is the testimony that when subjected to spells or sorcery or the use of “black magic” men may be brought to death. Among the natives of South America and Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and the islands of the Pacific, as well as among the negroes of nearby Haiti, “voodoo” death has been reported by apparently competent observers. (Cannon 1942)

He concluded with:

The suggestion which I offer, therefore, is that “voodoo death” may be real, and that it may be explained as due to shocking emotional stress-to obvious or repressed terror. (Cannon 1942)

Here is one quote for a reliable observer:

There is like testimony from Africa. Leonard (1906) has written an account of the Lower Niger and its tribes in which he declares:
I have seen more than one hardened old Haussa soldier dying steadily and by inches because he believed himself to be bewitched; no nourishment or medicines that were given to him had the slightest effect either to check the mischief or to improve his condition in any way, and nothing was able to divert him from a fate which he considered inevitable. In the same way, and under very similar conditions, I have seen Kru-men and others die in spite of every effort that was made to save them, simply because they had made up their minds, not (as we thought at the time) to die, but that being in the clutch of malignant demons they were bound to die. (quoted in Cannon 1942)

Then consider an early AIDS patient who knew his mother was praying for his death because of the shame it brought upon her due to her conservative Christian religion. Cohen reports that the mother who:​

learned on the same day that her son was gay and had AIDS. She reacted to this with hostility and openly maintained a prayer vigil outside the intensive care unit, praying that her son would die because of the shame he had caused her. The patient could hear his mother praying. One hour later the patient died, much to the surprise of his physician, since he did not appear to be terminal. (Cohen 1988)

The nocebo effect shows like nothing else the importance of grounding spiritual practice in nature instead of in human created religious delusions with their arbitrary laws and theologies. No one is powerless against spiritual powers or lordly deities. No one needs to be a victim. Spiritual powers, like Nature powers, can be understood and used either to expand the Divine space via connection, balance, and growth or to oppose it.


Cannon, W. B. (1942). “Voodoo” death. American Anthropologist, 44(2), 169-181.
Cohen, Calvin; Revicki, Dennis A.; Nabulsi, Azmi; Sarocco, Phillip W.; Jiang, Ping; Advanced HIV Disease Ritonavir Study Group. A randomized trial of the effect of ritonavir in maintaining quality of life in advanced HIV disease. AIDS: 20 August 1998 - Volume 12 - Issue 12 - p 1495–1502
Hahn, R.A (1997) The Nocebo Phenomenon: Scope and Foundations. In The Placebo Effect edited by Anne Harrington, Harvard University Press
Wiseman, R. (2009) 59 Seconds: Change your life in under a Minute . Alfred A. Knopf