Dream Gates

Dream Gates


Placebos work even without deception, if you please

posted by Robert Moss

placebo. (1).jpgSo you want to get well. Are you sure? Okay, I’m going to give you a pill for that. What’s in it? Oh, a little sugar and glucose. Who cares, exactly? You can see the name on the pill, Placebo. Maybe you’ve heard of that? It means something that will help you get well not because it’s packed with wonder drugs but because it’s loaded with wonder. All you have to do is believe it will help.

Would you rather I had concealed what we’re playing at here, and let you believe this sugar pill was an experimental drug? We decided not to deceive you because we know this is going to work if you let it work. Here’s a file of what we know about how placebos help to heal. Yes, there’s a lot of reading material here. You can just read the executive summary if you want. When you’re ready to believe that the placebo can help make you well because it pleases you to believe that, take the pill.
I doubt that this is quite how physicians talked to patients who participated in a most interesting recent controlled trial of how placebos work even without deception. But I think it’s in the spirit of the undertaking, and of larger possibilities for healing.
The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) has released a study that suggests that the placebo effect may work without deception. The patient knows that she’s being given a sugar pill, not a real drug, with the suggestion that this could help anyway – and it does help. Her attitude shifts (maybe because she’s entering into a spirit of play) and the body responds, as it always responds to feelings and suggestions.

The study emerged from r
andomized controlled trials of people suffering from irritable bowel syndrome [IBS]. Patients knew they were taking a placebo and the control was a group that had no medication at all. 80 adults participated. The participants receiving the placebo were given instructions that permitted them to forecast a positive result. 


The study found that concealment was unnecessary so long as patients were provided instructions weighed toward positive outcomes. “

Placebos administered without deception may be an effective treatment for IBS. Further research is warranted in IBS, and perhaps other conditions, to elucidate whether physicians can benefit patients using placebos consistent with informed consent.” {See 

 Kaptchuk TJ, Friedlander E, Kelley JM, et al., “Placebos without deception”]


For many years, the evidence has been growing that placebos work, especially in pain relief and as antidepressants. Back in 

2002, one study reevalauated FDA data for six top antidepressants and found that 80 percent of their effect was duplicated in placebo control groups. French psychiatrist Patrick Lemoine, author of Le Mystère du placebo,  maintains that 35-40 percent of official prescriptions are “impure placebos” – “pharmacologically inactive substances contaminated with a tiny amount of active ingredient” that is “not enough to have a clinical effect, but enough for doctors to claim that it does.”  

There is an impressive body of data on how placebos change the working of the brain. Given a placebo, the brain produces opiates that may be effective self-manufactured medication. Beliefs induce a chemical response in the brain, and the chemicals produced can combine with prescribed medications to generate better results – or better yet, substitute for those meds.. 
Placebo is borrowed from the Latin. It means “I shall please”. The evidence that a placebo will work even if we know we are being given nothing more than an inducement to shift o
ur attitudes and expectations is very exciting. It confirms that the mind can help to heal the body, if we please.
It invites us to recognize the simple truth expressed by Mark Twain in visionary mode: “The power which a man’s imagination has over
his body to heal it or make it sick is a force which none of us is born
without. The first man had it; the last one will possess it.”


  • http://www.wandaburch.com Wanda Burch

    The “King’s Touch” – as Mark Twain named the Placebo Effect – is available to us all. The NCCAM board battled for integrity the first 10 years of its existence; in the next 10 years they have set as their primary goal acceptable scientific basis for the Mind-Body-Spirit connection. These new studies are some of the first to emerge – backed by clinical trials that the scientific community finds acceptable – and are “proving” what the rest of us have always known. How long it has been for deception to be proven not to be a necessary in the mind understanding how to play a major role in the body’s healing. This is probably not so important to those of us who already understand this; it is very important for scientists to be able to admit it right out loud!

  • http://blog.beliefnet.com/dreamgates/ Robert Moss

    Wanda – This seems to me to be of the first importance in bringing mind-body healing into the mainstream practice of medicine and healthcare. Thank you so much for the tremendous contribution you are making.

  • Karolyn

    A most interesting study! As a therapist using a variety of mind/body techniques to successfully treat anxiety, depression and trauma I am incredulous that we are still debating such things! But then again Big Pharma has a stake in it all and this kind of research is not advancing their interests, obviously quite the contrary!! I am thrilled to hear that the NCCAM is getting funding for this research and we can go back to what indigenous people (and dreamers!) have always known, how to heal oneself by imagining it so!!
    PS- I have recently become intrigued by an amazing healer from India who is also a scientist, who came to AMerica so that hard research could be performed by the most skeptical scientists on his healing work. So far there have been over 4000 experiments done proving that he has the capability of transforming plants, animals and people at the cellular level. His name is Muhamar Trivedi. The scientific evidence is posted on his website. Fascinating stuff!

  • http://blog.beliefnet.com/dreamgates/ Robert Moss

    Karolyn – Yes,it is excellent news that NCCAM is now playing a leadership role in supporting the production of scientific data that can shift the paradigms.

  • Bob Weisberg

    A clear and concise exposition of a very important area of research. I know the principal author, who is a close associate of Dr. David Eisenberg of Harvard. They chose a good medical condition, IBS, to show a strong effect, as IBS is very responsive to Mind-Body approaches. I have always recognized that every medical or surgical intervention has a ceremonial or ritual element, which functions primarily within the cultural and social context to support the patient in activating or mobilizing their innate healing system.
    These kinds of research studies are at the cutting edge of a true shift in Western scientific understanding, part of the paradigm shift that I have been working within and towards for some time now. Good stuff

  • http://blog.beliefnet.com/dreamgates/ Robert Moss

    Bob – Thanks so much for confirming the importance of studies of this kind in bringing about a long-needed paradigm shift. And thanks for you own contributions, as physician and healer and dreamer, towards that shift. Your statement that “every medical or surgical intervention has a ceremonial or ritual element” that needs to work within the prevailing culture is practical wisdom.

  • Don

    Belief is effective in ways other than healing. During the years of alcohol prohibition, people got drunk on non-alcoholic “Near Beer.” And I used to have an acquaintance who often told himself how much he hurt. And he did hurt, too. In the other direction, in 1958 I quit smoking without the struggle with withdrawal that people talk about. I just ‘knew’ that I was going to quit. Then one day I realized that I had quit. It was that simple. So much of that kind of thing becomes a matter of self-fulfilling prophecy.
    I am delighted to see the power of the placebo being recognized. What we think does affect our bodies. I am very glad that you posted this, Robert. People need to know about it. Thank You!

  • http://blog.beliefnet.com/dreamgates/ Robert Moss

    You are so right, Don. I’m smiling because you remind me of a dream friend who doesn’t touch alcohol but gets very lively on a bottle of O’Doul’s non-alcoholic beer!

  • Kenton

    Really good to see this kind of research happening. This is so important for the medical community to understand so that they will avoid hurting people. In medical research trials the control is usually plocebo. However whan a drug has bad side effects, the people who get the test drug know that they are getting something other than a sugar pill. This enhances the plocebo effect of drugs with bad side effects, and the results of the “research” show that dangerous drugs are more effective, when in fact it may not be. There is alot of harm caused by this ignorance. More Light here!!!
    As a side note, this effect may be much greater than we can imagine, there is some consistent embarrasing research that shows sham surgeries may be as effective as actual surgeries.
    Thanks for posting Robert

  • http://blog.beliefnet.com/dreamgates/ Robert Moss

    Thanks, Kenton. Yes, we need to make this kind of research part of the general conversation, so we can all be better-informed participants in healthcare, rather than passive consumers of what is prescribed for us (especially when those prescribing ignore the mind-body connections).

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Rachel Richter

    As someone who has worked in social work for years, I am wondering how it is that they controlled for the fact that potentially the added attention from others and/or contact from someone who cares to know what is actually going on with the person and his/her symptoms was not a significant factor in the overall “placebo effect.” I think there is something to the relational connection there that plays a huge role in the overall results…can this study really allow us to deduce that believing a placebo will provide healing is the ONLY reason for the actual healing?

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Star

    Belief/hope is a wonderful thing. I appreciate Kenton’s remark above also.
    If I were offered a pill and told it was a placebo that “could” help to make me well, and it did, would I care if it were a placebo? No!
    This article is very interesting. I think part of getting well is absolutely seeing the value and hope in getting well. Perhaps part of the placebo effect is that to which the author refers, “If you please.” Is there any part of me that is holding on to sickness to avoid something? Illness/disease is real and not to be trivialized; however, perhaps even the tiniest clutch on doubt releases hormones/chemicals that making healing slower, as opposed to removing that block and replacing with hope/belief to grow stronger.
    I am chronically ill with a “no cure” label and learning this firsthand. The brain is a marvelous, powerful, wonderful thing.

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