Why placebos work so well

An article in Fortune magazine puzzles over the role of placebos in modern medicine. A placebo is a supposedly worthless pill, like a sugar pill, given to some of the patients in a study to see if a “real drug” works better than “nothing.”

But, as the article reports, a surprising thing is happening in study after study. Too many people are recovering from health problems given only placebos. Since this is supposed to be the “control” where we can assume no medicine is present, this is very puzzling to many, many scientists, researchers and physicians.

There is only a mystery, though, if you think that human beings are purely physical. As soon as you take a holistic view of a person — that is, body-mind-spirit — the mystery of the placebo disappears.
The only way a researcher can “factor out” the caring and personal attention provided by physicians and nurses to their patients, is to think of the patients as only physical.
This is, I think, a shortcoming of Western medicine. And it’s why the “placebo effect” is so elusive. This article in Science Daily points out that researchers are actually pitting two types of placebos against each other in studies, trying to understand “which one is best.”

This is a good start, but I think it misses the point. Why not study the difference between a caring physician and a cold-hearted one? We’ve all had the experience of a beloved grandmother or parent whose health was failing until they were assigned to a different doctor who took more interest in them and, like magic (placebo!), they started feeling better and the illness abated.

What we think matters. Our connection to spirit matters. Only in Western countries is this even a debate. People familiar with Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) or Indian ayurvedic medicine just smile and nod politely when asked if mind and spirit need to be taken into account to heal a person. Of course they do!

I felt that Norman Cousins gave us the definitive answers on this problem in his book Anatomy of an Illness (1979, W.W. Norton and Company). Cousins was the editor in chief of the Saturday Review, and when he came down with a rare form of arthritis called Marie-Strumpell’s disease, he employed a strange, but powerful medicine.


Cousins said that it relieved him of pain for hours at a time just to have a good laugh. In his words, “I made the joyous discovery that ten minutes of genuine belly laughter had an anesthetic effect and would give me at least two hours of pain-free sleep. When the pain-killing effect of the laughter wore off, we would switch on the motion picture projector again and not infrequently, it would lead to another pain-free interval.” (ref)

The motion pictures he was watching? Marx Brothers and other slapstick comedies. (Such a guy.)

Cousins lived for another 16 years after being diagnosed with this deadly disease. He beat it and lived until his seventies. (Note: Cousins did use other therapies, such as megadoses of Vitamin C. But he felt strongly that laughter was his best medicine.)

To me, the placebo effect is a misnomer. Our emotions, positive or negative, have an effect on our health. Our thoughts too. And even our connection to spirit. This is health, and healthcare should address all parts of us.

And there’s nothing like a good laugh to serve our body, mind and spirit.