Can you do the placebo?

To me, “placebo” always sounds like a Spanish or South American dance, so my natural instinct would be to give it a wide berth. Joking aside, I am sure the well-informed reader will know what this term means: “Anything of no direct medical benefit which nevertheless makes people feel better or benefit psychologically” – this is the definition that I got from a dictionary, which I think serves well. I find the concept of the “placebo effect” fascinating. The idea that the Human body can more effectively fight an illness or repair itself – just because the person thinks that they have taken a beneficial drug – is amazing. If the brain has such power, what else can it do, given the right encouragement?

I thought that the concept was simple enough until I started thinking about my own experiences with some medication [or lack thereof] …

Some time ago, I was suffering a minor medical condition – more of an inconvenience than an illness. So I went to see my doctor. She was unsure whether it was a physical problem or a psychosomatic [i.e. all in the mind] issue – I was under quite a lot of stress at the time. She decided to give me some medication to treat the symptoms. It worked very well. When I had the problem, I just took a pill and, within 30 minutes or so, I would be fine. It worked almost 100% of the time, only being less effective if I had just eaten a large meal, as a result of drug absorption issues. As the pills were considered quite safe and had very few side-effects, I was happy enough to keep taking them and not worry whether I was treating a physical ailment or not.

Then, one day, I accidentally carried out an experiment on myself. I needed my medication, so I fetched a pill and took it into the kitchen to get some water with which to take it. A while later, I became aware that it had not been as effective as usual, which was odd, as I had not just had a meal. Later that evening, I was back in the kitchen and found my pill on the table. I had clearly become distracted earlier and left the kitchen convinced that I had taken it, when, in fact, I had not. [Older readers may be familiar with such absent-mindedness.]

So, it was clear. I must have a physical problem, as my symptoms were still manifested even though I was quite sure that I had taken the pill. So, clearly the physical absence of the medication resulted in my lack of relief. I decided to mention it to the doctor in due course, so that she could carry out more tests to trace the physical problem.

Later, I realized the error in my logic. I was thinking that not taking a pill, but believing that I had, was equivalent to someone giving me a sugar pill to take under the impression that it was the real thing. In my situation, my conscious brain was unaware that I had missed the pill. However, what about my subconscious? I am aware on a daily basis that my brain can do many things without me giving matters a conscious thought. Sometimes, solutions to problems or ideas come to me out of nowhere. That must be my subconscious. I would find it quite easy to believe that the subconscious brain is involved in the placebo effect. So it “knew” that I had not taken a pill and would, therefore, not cooperate. I guess I will just keep taking the pills.

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This article first appeared on the Siemens Digital Industries Software blog at https://blogs.sw.siemens.com/embedded-software/2010/07/15/can-you-do-the-placebo/