Sunday, March 11, 2007

The Placebo Effect

In Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, Ronald Weasley made miraculous saves to help his house win the Quidditch finals. He was under the impression that he had taken a dose of the luck potion ‘Felix Felicis’. However, that wasn’t the case and Ron was under a mere illusion. He was made to ‘believe’ he had consumed the potion.

It’s amazing what effect a person’s psychological state can have on his physical state. This was fiction but in the real world too, the power of the mind hasn’t gone unutilized. This phenomenon is called the Placebo Effect. It is defined as the psychological and/or physiological changes that result from the administration of a physiologically inert treatment.

Placebos are most widely used in the field of medicine. It’s interesting to note that placebo in Latin stands for “I will please”. Whenever a placebo is requested in a medical prescription, it simply implies a statement by the prescribing doctor that “This patient has come to me pleading for treatment which does exist or which I cannot or will not supply; I will please him b giving him something ineffectual and claiming that it’s effectual.”

Sugar pills are often given instead of medication, as pain killers and anti-depressants and they have had a proven positive effect on the patients. Many homeopathic medicines have been replaced by placebos in clinic trials and a sizable number of patients have continued to show an improvement. A few critics argue that the use of placebos is sham medicine and practitioners are misleading their patients but the medical world is still eager in expanding the sphere of treatments based on the placebo effect.

The Placebo effect has its physiological influence, but the psychological responses are even more astounding.

Arthur Anderson audited thousands of companies, and those audits gave us confidence in those companies, made them appear more stable, which, not surprisingly, made them more stable. Then, post Enron, the placebo effect disappeared. Same companies, same auditors, but suddenly those companies appeared less sturdy, which made them less sturdy.

Even the price of products in market can alter the efficacy of products to which they’re applied. In three experiments, it was shown that consumer paying a discounted price for a product derive lesser benefits from consuming this product compared to consumers who purchase and consume exactly the same product at its regular price. For example, consumers of an energy drink thought to increase mental acuity were able to solve fewer puzzles when they bought the drink at a discounted rate.

The power of placebos is also observed at home. A person watching a frightening scene in a movie will experience a sudden rush of stress hormones, even though that person knows he is in reality perfectly safe. A teddy bear may help a worried youngster get to sleep, even though a teddy bear has no intrinsic sleep-inducing qualities of its own. It is the child's mental processes, triggered by his awareness of the presence of the teddy that induces much needed sleep.

There exists a negative placebo effect too. We all play pranks, don’t we? Wait for a friend to drink a glass of water and then say to him "You didn't use THAT water did you? They found a rotting pigeon in the tank. The last person to use water from THAT tap was off sick for a week." It’s not very surprising that within a short time the poor guy who drank the perfectly normal, healthy and wholesome water will be feeling unwell! You have just turned a harmless glass of water into a negative placebo.

The human mind is capable of playing strange games. If its power is wielded in the right way, life can improve significantly. The current research on the Placebo effect is just the tip of the ice-berg. It has been neglected as compared to the conventional approaches in various fields. We’re standing at a threshold of a unique branch of human psychology. There’s a whole new dimension waiting to be explored!

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