The placebo effect has a demonstrable effect on not only our health, but our concept of reality as well. Photo by Vinh Dao.

A placebo is a substance, such as a pill or shot, that contains no active medicine. Scientists typically use placebos as controls in research studies. This helps them understand how much of a medicine’s effects are due to the drug itself, versus how much are due to participants’ expectations or other factors.

People who are given a placebo generally tend to report improvements in symptoms, and sometimes even when this effect can occur when they knowingly take a sugar pill, or some other faux-medicine. To better understand the neurochemical mechanisms underlying the placebo effect, a team led by the American, Dr. Jon-Kar Zubieta, formerly at the University of Michigan School of Medicine and now at the University of Utah examined such effects in depression treatment.

The scientists enrolled 35 people with major depression who weren’t taking any medications. In the first phase of the study, the participants were randomly assigned to receive placebo pills that were described as a potentially fast-acting antidepressant (“active” placebo group) or identical pills described as a placebo with no antidepressant effects (“inactive” placebo group). Each group took the pills for a week, and then after a few days, the groups switched.

At the end of each week of treatment, the participants completed a questionnaire about their depression symptoms. They also underwent a PET brain scan to measure the activity of µ-opioid receptors, which are known to be involved in emotion, stress, social rewards, and depression.

During the scan, the active placebo group received intravenous doses of saline with the understanding that it might activate brain systems involved in mood improvement. This was done to monitor the acute effects of an active placebo on brain function. The inactive placebo group received no infusions during the scan.

In the second phase of the study, all participants were treated for 10 weeks with antidepressants (usually selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors), and their depression symptoms were monitored.

The researchers found that the participants reported significant decreases in depression symptoms when they took the active placebo, compared to when they took the inactive placebo. These reductions were linked to increased µ-opioid receptor brain activity in regions of the brain associated with emotion and stress regulation. Notably, the increased µ-opioid activity induced by the active placebo was also associated with significantly better responses to the subsequent antidepressant treatment.

All of these results seem to keep suggesting that some people are more responsive to the intention to treat their depression.

Science seems to be overlooking something that has deep roots in history, and depending on who you discuss the subject with, helped spawn the modern age of the scientific method. This phenomenon would be Hermetic thinking of the Renaissance, alchemy, mystical traditions, yogas, and more.

During the 1980s, the placebo effect had basically no record of existing. Now, this placebo cure phenomena accounts for over 70 percent of a total  effect in the average medical trial. What does this mean?

If this data is legitimate, does that mean that one can just use their intention behind placebo to cure illnesses? There’s a lot behind intention in holistic healing methods that trace their origins back to Shamanism and indigenous forms of plant medicine.

And If these faux-medicines work so well as to outperform the sanctioned pharmaceuticals that we are prescribed at the doctor’s office, then what does that mean for big pharma and the various exorbitantly-priced medicines that are tested against placebos before receiving approval for the average person to utilise? Obviously this is a pressing issue, and one that needs professionals to unravel the plot. Dr. William Tiller, Ph.D., professor emeritus at Stanford University, and Dr. Nisha Manek, M.D., formerly of the Mayo Clinic, teamed up to study the placebo effect.

In mystical study groups, at your drum circle, or acupuncture appointment, there is always conversation about the mind-body connection. Some researchers feel that this connection is behind the efficacy between something like taking a sugar pill, and the drastic improvements made toward healing a sickness or disease. In the past, placebos were seen as something, like a sugar pill, that doesn’t have an effect on health in and of itself. It’s a person’s thoughts that must affect the body in some psychobiological way. But what if human intention physically changes the placebo and the placebo does have an effect on health in and of itself? What if the placebo is no longer inert?

Tiller and Manek have had to wonder if intention is getting blended with the information that comes with taking a placebo. The placebo’s potential may mutate as a result of human intention directed at it and thus it may have a physical effect in and of itself on the patient’s body.

This is something that yogis, healers, and mystics have been suggesting through their practices for centuries. That through the power of self discipline and a strong, developed will, people can absolutely affect their bodies, minds, and heal them outright just by doing various visualisations and meditative exercises. One of the best definitions of magic, from authors William Swatos and Peter Kivisto, in regards to the practice of doing ritual exercises handed down from past mystical traditions, is as such: magic is any attempt to control the environment or the self by means that are either untested or untestable.

Now things are getting interesting, because methods like placebo, which one could argue is almost a magical device in itself, are being tested by the scientific method – with interesting results.

In a classical sense, a clinical trial consists of a doctor, the patient (study subject), the active treatment being investigated, and the placebo. We think all these four elements are separate in space and time. What Tiller and Manek show mathematically is that the placebo is connected to the active treatment and that this connectivity changes it’s potential—it’s not a dummy anymore.

Tiller and Manek go on to say: “We must be circumspect about rejecting a medical treatment because its presently measured efficacy is little different from that produced by the placebo in the entangled experiment.”

However, at the end of the day, results are results, are they not?

Sources: Carol Torgan, Ph.D. and the National Institutes of Health.