A Cup of Tea, a Bex and a Good Lie Down
For the first time in history, the whole world is united against a common enemy. The main mission now is to find a vaccine to this dreaded virus that has affected us all. This will require clinical trials on both animals and humans, a complex and time-consuming process.
I’m no scientist, so I won’t try to explain how such trials work, but there is one aspect that grabs my attention. Clinical trials require a certain number of participants to receive an inactive substance, or ‘dummy treatment’, that can serve as a baseline for comparing the effects of an active treatment. This is known as a ‘placebo’.
Placebo has power and is definitely a ‘thing’. Indeed, anyone who has watched kids’ sport has witnessed its effects. Who remembers the ‘magic water’ being applied via a sponge after you’d been kicked in the shins in soccer or twisted your ankle during a netball match? The power of suggestion was real; before we knew it we were back on the field and running around as if nothing had happened.
‘Placebo effect’ is a psychological term that is quite concrete, a concept that promotes the idea of mind over matter. The very thought of having a pill that, unbeknown to the participant, is just sugar with no medicinal value can be quite a calming and therapeutic experience. In fact the positive or therapeutic effect from receiving a placebo treatment sits somewhere around the 30-40 per cent mark, some research has it as high as 60 per cent.
Interestingly, even the colour of the medication can have an influence on its perceived effectiveness. Stimulants are seen to be more effective if they are red, with sedatives seen to be better if they are blue. As Morpheus said in The Matrix, “You take the blue pill (sedative)… the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill (stimulant)… you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.”
What does this actually mean? Well, Morpheus aside, the mere expectation that a treatment will make you better is enough to set in motion a beneficial process in the brain and body. Placebo sets an expectation in how we respond to an illness and, to some degree, the perceived effect that a treatment can have on us. However, it can go one step further. If a patient knows what the drug is for, it can act as a placebo amplifier. For example, morphine, which primarily treats pain relief, is known to be more effective if the patient knows they are on it and less effective if the patient is unaware.
Closely related to the placebo effect is what is known as a ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’, a prediction of something that becomes true simply as a consequence of it having been made. Thinking, “I reckon the supermarkets will run out of toilet paper,” leads one to rush down and buy a few rolls, and hence they run out. Another example might be when a rumour spreads that a major company will go down during a crisis. Then, despite its best efforts to contain the rumour, investors will dump shares like rats jumping off a sinking ship. It’s easy to see how the concept of the self-fulfilling prophecy can see people transform their expectations into reality.
There are many other links between expectations and behaviour, the two I’ve mentioned are just the tip of the iceberg. So, we now know the power of suggestion is very real and the placebo effect has been known for centuries. How does this apply to us in today’s climate? Well, without placebo we would never know the true effectiveness of any medication, especially a vaccine. In terms of mental health and placebo, if our beliefs and expectations can positively help our well-being then I’m all for it.