The interaction of our thoughts with the physical material world is of huge interest today, garnering increasing attention by academics around the world. Despite a wealth of scientific data showing that one can influence the other, and even more evidence proving that certain emotional states can lead to chronic illness, many who work in mainstream medicine remain entirely ignorant of these concepts.
Perhaps this is why more and more people are gravitating towards alternative forms of medicine. As Garth Cook from Scientific American points out:
A growing body of scientific research suggests that our mind can play an important role in healing our body — or in staying healthy in the first place. . . There are now several lines of research suggesting that our mental perception of the world constantly informs and guides our immune system in a way that makes us better able to respond to future threats. That was a sort of ‘aha’ moment for me — where the idea of an entwined mind and body suddenly made more scientific sense than an ephemeral consciousness that’s somehow separated from our physical selves.
When it comes to learning about the mind-body connection and its relationship to our health, it can be difficult to choose a starting place amongst the vast and growing body of research; one of the best places to start, however, is the placebo effect, which demonstrates that the mind can create physiological changes in the body. Neuroscientist Fabrizio Benedetti explains:
There isn’t just one placebo effect, but many. Placebo painkillers can trigger the release of natural pain-relieving chemicals called endorphins. Patients with Parkinson’s disease respond to placebos with a flood of dopamine. Fake oxygen, given to someone at altitude, has been shown to cut levels of neurotransmitters called prostaglandins (which dilate blood vessels, among other things, and are responsible for many of the symptoms of altitude sickness.
The placebo effect is so wondrous because it unlocks the power of the mind; the biological changes observed in the body after administration of a placebo are not triggered by the placebo itself, but rather by our mind, by our perception, by our psychological response to these fake treatments.
Despite intriguing results, research into the placebo effect has been limited. So far, only a few model systems have been investigated, like pain, depression, and Parkinson’s, but there is much more to be learned. One thing, however, does remain clear, and that is that we can change our biology simply by changing what we believe to be true. In his book The Biology of Belief, Bruce Lipton, PhD, persuasively argues for further research into this untapped resource within ourselves:
The placebo effect should be the subject of major, funded research efforts. If medical researchers could figure out how to leverage the placebo effect, they would hand doctors an efficient, energy-based, side effect-free tool to treat disease. Energy healers say they already have such tools, but I am a scientist, and I believe the more we know about science of the placebo, the better we’ll be able to use it in a clinical setting.
Let’s take a look at a few more interesting studies that warrant further investigation into the matter. One great one is a Baylor School of Medicine study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2002. It looked at surgery for patients with severe and debilitating knee pain. Many surgeons know there is no placebo effect in surgery, or so most of them believe. The patients were divided into three groups. The surgeons shaved the damaged cartilage in the knee of one group. For the second group they flushed out the knee joint, removing all of the material believed to be causing inflammation. Both of these processes are the standard surgeries for people who have severely arthritic knees. The third group received a “fake” surgery; the patients were only sedated and tricked into believing they had had the knee surgery. Doctors simply made the incisions and splashed salt water on the knee as they would in normal surgery. They then sewed up the incisions like the real thing and the process was complete. All three then groups went through the same rehab process, with astonishing results: the placebo group improved just as much as the other two groups who had surgery.