Like many millennials, I fancy myself as a man of science. Want me to believe in something? Show me the science behind it. Although I can be stubborn as hell until I see some scientific evidence, I’ve always been fascinated by how the placebo effect can without a doubt help people improve their mental health.
I’m not into all that “woo woo” stuff, but the more I learn, the more I’m starting to understand the mind-body connection. If we all started learning about the science behind the power of the mind’s healing ability, we can start using it to our advantage to live better lives.
My First Experience with the Placebo Effect
I’m a recovering drug addict with 7 years clean, but back in the day, I did some shady stuff. One thing I did that I’m not proud of is selling my girlfriend’s best friend pills telling her they were opioids when they were actually amphetamines.
My drug dealer was out of the opioids that I would usually buy from him, so he tried to pull a fast one on me and sell me some Adderall. Since I’m paranoid, I always Googled the pills I bought just in case, so that’s how I figured out that these were not what I thought they were.
I figured calling my drug dealer a liar would either make him not want to do business with me or make him want to punch me in the face, so I sold them to my girlfriend’s friend to make my money back. Not long after, she texted my girlfriend telling her that these pills were awesome and how high she was.
Opioids are depressants and amphetamines are stimulants, but this girl believed they were opioids so she got the effect of opioids. The placebo effect was at work.
The Placebo Effect on Depression
Now sober, I really became interested in the placebo effect was in the incredible book Lost Connections by Johann Hari. Something I love and admire about Hari is he can break our schemas like nobody else and teach us completely new ways to look at a subject, and he does an excellent job with this when it comes to depression in this book.
The start of the book is all about how a lot of what we think we know about depression is wrong. He dives into the controversial subject of the effectiveness of antidepressant medications, and then he discusses the placebo effect by sharing the story of the British physician John Haygrath who aimed to prove that these snake oil doctors were running a scam.
Back in 1799, there was these rods that doctors would use called Perkins tractors that were supposedly capable of removing diseases from the body. Haygarth went out, bought some random cheap rods, used them on patients and told them it was this amazing Perkins tractor, and 4 out of 5 patients who had rheumatism reported that their pain improved.
Now, here we are over 200 years later, and the placebo effect is used to test out anti-depressants.
In Dr. Irving Kirsch’s controversial book The Emperor’s New Drugs, he dives deep into the myths about antidepressant medications. As a psychologist, he’s spent over 15 years analyzing research around antidepressant medications and their effectiveness. Throughout the book, he breaks down countless studies about how people in clinical trials who receive a placebo report decreases in depression more often than not.
The Weight Loss Placebo
Dr. Alia Crum is an incredible psychologist who is referenced in many books for her amazing studies on the power of belief. One of my favorite studies of hers was explaining to one group of housekeepers how their work is as good as exercise, but the second group was not given the same detailed information. At the end of the study, the housekeepers who understood the physical benefits of their work actually lost weight.
This is a great example of why we should all broaden our scope of knowledge, but I’ll save that for another post because we’re here to talk about placebos.
Another great study Crum did was give two groups of people milkshakes. For one group, the shakes were called “Sensishake”, and they told the group that these were fat-free, guilt-free and only 104 calories. The second group was given a shake that was called “Indulgence”, and this was labeled as being 620 calories with the slogan, “decadence you deserve”.
Well, in good psychological study fashion, they lied to both groups. Both of the shakes were exactly the same and had 300 calories.
So, why does this matter?
They tested the hormones of each group, and the group that received the “unhealthy” shake had much lower levels of ghrelin. What’s ghrelin? Ghrelin is a hormone our gut produces that’s often called “the hunger hormone”. High levels of ghrelin signal the brain to seek out some food, and in turn, it slows down your metabolism so you can store fat just in case you don’t find food.
Think about that for a second. Due to the Sensishake group simply believing they were drinking a shake high in calories, they produced less ghrelin and weren’t as hungry as those who drank the “healthy shake”. How cool is that?!
The Ethical Dilemma
If you subscribe to a utilitarian philosophy like myself, right now you’re thinking, “WTF?! Placebos can make people less depressed and less hungry? Let’s just give everyone placebos!”
Because of something called informed consent, we can’t just go around passing out placebos all willy nilly. This would be highly unethical even though placebos have also been proven to help people with IBS, migraines and more.
But hope is not lost!
Researches have found an awesome way to help people use the placebo effect to their advantage. They do this by telling the person the truth. Studies have shown that giving a patient a placebo and telling them it’s a placebo works just as well. This is done by the prescribing physician or psychiatrist telling the patient, “This pill has no active ingredients, but many people who have taken this pill have seen decreases in their symptoms.”
Is Ignorance Bliss?
I see a lot of people talking down on people who “waste” their money on all of these random remedies that aren’t backed by science and are sometimes a flat out scam. I remember one of my favorite YouTubers did this video on the people who buy those detox foot pads, and he exposed how they’re a scam. Many of these pads work by having ingredients that react to the oils from your feet, which make the pad change colors, but the manufacturer tells you that these are all the toxins leaving your body.
Then, there are MLMs like doTERRO that sell essential oils that are supposed to cure everything from depression, to anxiety, autism and cancer.
For more serious claims like these products having the ability to cure autism and cancer, that’s deplorable, and I don’t think it should be legal. But what about people who use these essential oils or detox pads and report that they feel better?
I’m an atheist, but who am I to deny the experience of people who are religious? Here in Las Vegas, I know plenty of Mormons, and many of them tell me how their belief helps relieve their anxiety, and their faith helps bring them out of depression. Many religious people believe that the good things in their life are because God made them happen, and when tough times fall upon them, they believe that it’s part of a bigger plan.
I see so many people arguing with others about how wrong they are for their beliefs, but if it’s making their life better and they aren’t hurting anyone, why should we rain on that parade if we aren’t believers ourselves?
So, is ignorance bliss? I think the answer is yes and no.
As you saw with the housekeeper study, simply learning more can benefit you. Personally, learning about psychology and the ins and outs of therapy has helped me tremendously. Learning about anxiety helps me be less anxious because I understand what my brain is doing rather than getting anxiety about my anxiety because I don’t know what’s going on. Learning about my depression and reading studies has helped me use evidence-based methods to manage my depression.
At the end of the day, I think what can help us the most is simply believing in science. There are a ton of people out there who are a lot smarter than you and I, and by gaining some of their knowledge and turning that into our own wisdom, our lives can start getting better.