The Science of Mind Over Matter
Imagine that scientists discovered a new drug that could cure or improve the symptoms of most known diseases. Just one pill! Wouldn’t it make headline news all around the world, and become the greatest selling drug of all time?
Such a thing already exists. Let me introduce to you – The Placebo!
“The placebo effect has evolved from being thought of as a nuisance in clinical pharmacological research to a biological phenomenon worthy of scientific investigation in its own right.”
These are the words of Professor Fabrizio Benedetti, a neuroscience professor at the University of Turin School of Medicine, a world authority on the placebo effect, and member of the ‘Placebo Study Group’ of the Mind/Brain/Behaviour initiative at Harvard University.
A placebo is a dummy drug that is made to look just like a real drug. It is used in medical trials so that the drug can be tested against a control. Being a control, it is not supposed to heal but it does, because patients believe that it’s a real drug. Their mind heals them.
For years the cures were dismissed as ‘just placebo’ but new evidence has conclusively proven that there is no such thing as ‘just’ placebo. When you think you are receiving a medicine, you change the structure of your brain on a microscopic level and chemicals are released in several different areas.
For instance, a recent study into Parkinson’s disease saw patients given an antiparkinson’s drug (apomorphine). MRI brain scans then showed dopamine released in an area of the brain known as the striatum. When patients were given a placebo instead, there was also release of dopamine in the striatum. The brain didn’t seem to know the difference between actually getting apomorphine and just believing that the drug was apomorphine.
Much of the effect of many modern drugs is due to the placebo effect. Of course, drugs work in their own right. When I was a scientist in the pharmaceutical industry I worked with them. They work in test tubes. But a test tube doesn’t have a mind. When you give a drug to an actual person, their thoughts about the drug become important. If they think the drug will work, it is likely to. If they think that it won’t, then it won’t work as well.
This is often influenced by what a doctor tells them. Studies have shown that if a doctor is enthusiastic about a treatment then it works much better than if they have their doubts.
In a 1954 study, for instance, patients with bleeding ulcers were given water injections but told either that the injections would cure them, or that they were being given experimental injections of undetermined effectiveness. Of the patients who were told that the injections would cure them, 70% showed excellent improvement, but of the group who were told that it was an experimental injection, only 25% improved.
In another study, some patients were given a positive consultation (for minor ailments) along the lines of, “you will be better soon,” and some were given a negative consultation, along the lines of, “I’m not sure what’s wrong with you.” After 2 weeks, 64% of those who received a positive consultation were better but only 39% of those who received the negative one were better.
So some of the effects of drugs are caused by our belief in the doctor or our belief in the drug. Recent analysis of the bestselling antidepressants on the market revealed that the placebo effect accounts for 81% of their effectiveness.
It was a meta-analysis (summary of a number of scientific studies) of Fluoxetine (Prozac), Venlafaxine (Effexor), Nefazodone (Serzone), and Paroxetine (Seroxat), covering 35 clinical trials involving 5,133 patients.
But as I’ve pointed out, this doesn’t mean that the drugs don’t work. It really just means that, for depression, the placebo effect is very high. With heart medicines, there is also a very high placebo effect. A number of heart medicines have a placebo effect around 60-70%. The drugs work, but so do our thoughts about the drugs. So great power to heal lies within us, we just need to believe it.
And it’s not just thoughts around whether we are receiving a medicine or not that affect us. Every thought, regardless what it is a thought of, causes changes in the brain and releases chemicals throughout it.
This is how paralysed people are able to walk down a virtual reality street or move a cursor on a computer screen by thought alone, as recent news reports have described. These things are possible because a thought to move, say, a foot causes electrical activity in the ‘foot’ part of the brain. Implants measure the electrical activity (as brain waves) coming from the foot part of the brain and send a signal to a computer. The computer then makes a virtual character take a step.
In a similar way, paralysed people can make a cursor go left or right, up or down, on a computer screen and point to certain letter so that they can type e-mails with their thoughts. Sounds like science fiction, but it is science fact and it all relies on the simple fact that thoughts change the brain. In other words, that the mind affects the body.
These recent advances, as the forefront of science, are sure to lay to rest, once and for all, any scepticism that exists around whether mind affects body.
David R. Hamilton Ph.D.
Author of, ‘It’s the Thought that Counts’, ‘Destiny vs Free Will’, and ‘The Healing Power of the Mind’ (November 2008)