Placebo Effect: What it is, Examples and How it Works

What is the placebo effect?

In simple terms, a placebo is any drug or substance that is not supposed to have any medicinal value. Commonly used placebos include simulated breast implants, inert syrups, sham surgeries, and many other methods. Although the placebo effect may have many skeptics, there are those who trust it and believe that it works.

The brain reacts as if the drug were a lifesaver: the mind knows that the drug will relieve pain, even though it has never been tried before. These scientists theorize that the "placebo effect" tricks the brain into thinking the drug is really a treatment for the condition, when it's just a sugar pill or sugar spray that has absolutely no medical value.

How does the placebo effect work?

When patients receive the placebo, they think they are receiving the real therapy when in fact they are receiving a sugar pill. This happens because the effect of expectation is stronger than the effect of pain or actual physiological distress. In this way, the placebo has the power to shape the subjective experiences of patients.

Placebo effects occur when a patient undergoes hypnosis or is placed in a clinical situation where the effects of the drug are felt. Although no medications are used during these procedures, the effects of the medication are felt by the patient. The placebo effect can be found in all areas of life, from diet to exercise to sports. Placebo effects have even been associated with religious experiences. For example, prayer and meditation have been reported to increase the chances of experiencing placebo effects.

During treatments, patients often feel that they are receiving a therapeutic benefit, but this is not always the case as the actual treatment has been administered in the background without their knowledge. Placebo treatments bypass this critical stage and go directly to improve overall brain function, primarily through the spinal cord, which provides an important link between the psychological and physical domains.

Placebo effect examples

First Example: Buyer Illusion

A classic placebo effect in health care is the so-called shopper's illusion. In this example, a group of people are told that a particular product will help them lose weight or another will cure their disease. Individuals are then randomly assigned to a control group that received the placebo and a high-price-effectiveness group that received the high-priced product or treatment but were told the item was useless. The study found that the placebo-affected group lost more weight than the control group, but when they reported that the expensive treatment prevented or cured the disease, their belief that the expensive item was helpful was greater than their placebo effects. This effect is not limited to weight loss treatments.

Second Example: Cognitive Enhancement Therapies

Other examples of the Placebo Effect come from researchers who have examined the effects of cognitive enhancement therapies, also known as mind-body practices. Cognitive enhancement methods include those that use music, meditation, hypnosis, and other self-help techniques. These methods have been found to be helpful in treating some illnesses and addressing psychological or physical pain, but because the placebo component makes people think they are receiving the real treatment, the placebo effect is present. For example, the placebo effect refers to the fact that if researchers give you painkiller A, you might think you're getting B, even if it's just C, if you've been told A is better than B. If you're given the real medication, you will know that A is the real medication and that C is simply a placebo.

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