Do symbols work? The Placebo/Nocebo Effect

Is It All in Your Mind?: The Placebo/Nocebo Effect

“The overall thesis was simple: We have barely scratched the surface of our mental and spiritual capabilities.” — From The Lost Symbol, 55

Take a moment to answer this question: How much of the effect of a treatment or medicine is due to your belief that the treatment or drug will work?

The answer may surprise you: about one third of the time, the treatment or drug works only because you believe it does. It’s called the placebo effect. It’s so powerful an effect that all pharmaceutical and many other kinds of medical clinical trials have to account for it so that they can tell if it is really the drug or treatment working or only the role of expectation and belief that is at play.

In many drug trials, the manufacturers of the drug sadly discover that their product is in no way superior to the effect of a placebo. A placebo denotes nonchemical stimuli that strongly motivate the organism towards a therapeutic course. That is, the placebo effect is dependent not on the drug’s effectiveness but solely on therapeutic intention and expectation of the patient/user.

The word ‘placebo’ is Latin for ‘to please,” and in medicine it refers to a patient’s expectations and beliefs that a treatment will work, even if that treatment is known to have no beneficial or curative effect. In clinical studies of pharmaceuticals, for example, there are usually two groups under study, one taking the medicine being tested and one getting an inert substance, such as a sugar pill, that should have no healing effect. Surprisingly, up to one third of the time the sugar pills alleviate the patient’s symptoms.

The placebo-nocebo effect: How symbols can heal and kill

The power of symbols in healing has been long recognized in anthropology. Our mind is a powerful agent for affecting the physical world, including our own body. However, our mind not only can make an inert substance activate our own self-healing capacities, it also can do the reverse as well. The “nocebo effect” is when your beliefs activate undesirable or even harmful reactions in your body.

Whereas placebos have to do with positive symbols that anticipate clinical benefit, nocebos are linked to negative symbols that induce expectations of clinical worsening. Positive symbols can range from empathic doctors and smiling nurses, trust-inducing complex medical machines and apparatuses to alternative healings with Crystal, Acupuncture, Colour therapy, Aromatherapy, Religious symbols, Geomancy/Feng Shui symbols, New Age symbols etc. Likewise, there are a variety of negative symbols, ranging from shabby doctors to a pain-anticipating dentist’s drill.

From an evolutionary perspective, these symbols, and indeed their interpretations by the patients/users, have evolved from ancient shamanism to modern medicine, whereby the patient’s/user’s expectations and beliefs in the healing power of the doctor, shaman, crystal, symbols and so on, play a crucial role. By studying placebo and nocebo effects, today we are beginning to understand how symbols affect the patient’s/user’s brain or, in other words, how positive or negative psychosocial contexts can change the brain and body functioning of the patients/users.

Many medical professionals and a large proportion of the public write off the placebo effect as if it were just another anomaly in science. But it deserves our attention, for it shows that the human mind is the most powerful agent of healing known, so powerful it can change the effects of chemicals and heal us of diseases of all kinds. Spontaneous remissions from cancer, multiple sclerosis, and just about every other disease have been recorded in the medical literature. And so have nocebo cases where deaths occurred not because of a disease but because the patient thought he or she had an incurable and terminal disease. It turned out that later tests or autopsy showed there was no disease present.

Belief and expectation are “drugs” in and of themselves, since what we think changes our brain and body chemistry. We don’t yet know why some people are able to “believe” themselves well, while others who sincerely want to get well don’t. The dynamics of the placebo and nocebo effects remain a mystery, but are well worth exploring. Perhaps some day soon they will be taken seriously enough to warrant massive funding and intense scientific scrutiny. Each of us, however, can start right now to use the placebo effect to our benefit. Attitude, belief, intention all matter, not only to the state of our bodies and health, but also to the very condition of our lives and of the state of the world.

Finally, for a Symbol to convey Power, its user must Believe in it Absolutely. Doubt ruins the deal.


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