The Placebo Effect Demystified

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The placebo effect is one of the most reliable things in science, so much so that every good human clinical trial accounts for it. Belief has power, clearly. And this book delves into how to yield it without invoking too much pseudospiritual silliness.

Order You Are the Placebo: Making Your Mind Matter

You’ve probably heard all your life that belief and consciousness have power. Power to transform your life, to determine your future, to heal your body and to change the world around you. This book, better than any other I’ve read, breaks down why and how that works without delving into a lot of pseudoscientific nonsense.

The placebo effect is the healing power of belief

how people can take a sugar pill or get a saline injection and then their belief in something outside of themselves makes them get better.

The flip side of the placebo effect is the nocebo effect

a harmless substance that, thanks to strong expectations, causes harmful effects.

nocebo (Latin for “I shall harm,” as opposed to “I shall please,” the Latin translation of placebo), referring to an inert substance that causes a harmful effect — simply because someone believes or expects it will harm her. (p. 29)

The book thoroughly documents a number of fantastic cases of the placebo effect working…

  • The author’s own story, his back was badly broken as a young man when a car hit him while he was cycling, he was told by doctors that he would never walk again unless he received invasive surgery. Instead, he chose to heal himself with the power of the mind. He went home, spent hours daily meditating and visualizing his body healing and amazingly in 12 weeks his severe back injury was totally healed and he was back to lifting weights!
  • In a 2002 trial of a 180 patients (that’s statistically significant), some received sham placebo surgery, and amazingly their knees healed themselves, their pain went away and the patients could walk again, neither of the two groups who actually had the surgery improved any more than the patients who received the placebo surgery — and this held true even after two years.
  • Fake heart surgery is similarly effective, 67 percent of the patients who had received the actual surgery felt less pain and needed less medication, while 83 percent of those who had received the sham surgery enjoyed the same level of improvement. The placebo surgery had actually worked better than the real surgery!
  • A Harvard study of elderly men who were placed in an environment for several days that was meticulously and convincingly designed to feel like it was from 22 years earlier and the men’s biological aging markers when measured showed a positive regression towards a more youthful state. They felt and acted younger and amazingly various symptoms of aging disappeared in just a few days.
  • A wheelchair-bound woman suffering from crippling multiple sclerosis who healed herself and reversed her condition just by the power of meditation.
  • People who died of cancer that upon autopsy didn’t actually have cancer.

The power of the placebo is well documented in this book and the scientific literature referenced. In your own experience (or that of those close to you) you can probably think of examples of the placebo effect working. The placebo effect is so common that over 120,000 published clinical trials mention it prominently, it’s a universal factor in our health.

Don’t underestimate how associative neurobiology is…

An associative memory elicits a subconscious program that makes a connection between the pill or injection and the hormonal change in the body, and then the program automatically signals the body to make the related chemicals found in the drug. . . . Isn’t that amazing? (p. 39)

Since most of the placebo studies show that a single thought could activate the body’s autonomic nervous system and produce significant physiological changes, then you’re regulating your internal world by simply associating a thought with an emotion. (p. 76)

In my video on Oxytocin, I delve into how Oxytocin release creates patterns in our behavior, particularly in our love lives. Funnily, as a very young man, I went through of phase of dating black women, I just found them very sexy. When I think back on this, I think it’s due to a scene in The Odyssey that I found very arousing where a young Vanessa Williams playing the goddess Calypso seduces Odysseus that I watched back when I was like 15 years old.

Placebos Outperform Antidepressants

In researching a 1998 meta-analysis of published studies on antidepressant drugs, psychologist Irving Kirsch, Ph.D., then at the University of Connecticut, was shocked to find that in 19 randomized, double-blind clinical trials involving more than 2,300 patients, most of the improvement was due not to the antidepressant medications, but to the placebo. (p. 37)

the trials provided stunning proof that thinking that you can get better from depression can actually heal depression just as well as taking a drug. (p. 37)

Yet more proof that mainstream pharmaceuticals are fucking useless, the more I learn about pharmaceuticals the more I believe that it’s a truly evil industry with the goal of destroying humanity. Libertarians are quick to defend these psychopathic corporate citizens saying well, it’s just the bad incentives and the regulations that encourage bad corporate behavior… As I learn more and more about the history of big pharma I believe more and more that they truly have malicious intent.

The Power of Optimism

So the optimists were more likely to respond positively to a suggestion that something would make them feel better, because they were primed to hope for the best future scenario. And the pessimists were more likely to respond negatively to a suggestion that something would make them feel worse, because they consciously or unconsciously expected the worst potential outcome. (p. 45)

The placebo effect works a lot better when you’re optimistic and really hopeful that a pill or potion will work. In some of the most fantastic cases, where snake-handling evangelical Christians are bitten by poisonous snakes or young men swallow broken glass in tribal rituals they have absolute belief in a higher spiritual power protecting their bodies from things that should kill them, and it works!

The more you know the more it works…

The more you believe that a particular substance, procedure, or surgery will work because you’ve been educated about its benefits, the better your chances of responding to the thought of improving your health and getting better. (pp. 50–51)

Watch Why I sell smart drugs…

This is why I do such exhaustive content about biohacking and Nootropics. I could produce shorter, snappier videos that just pitch Nootropics with persuasive ad copy but I do exhaustive content that builds an airtight logical-emotional case, why the Racetams, for example, will really help people because I want to fully unleash the power of the placebo. In clinical studies, you’ll often see that the placebo is about 50% as effective as the Nootropic being studied. This means that if you’re optimistic and hopeful about a given Nootropic, it will likely work about 50% better. Which might lead you to think…

Couldn’t I save myself a lot of money then by just taking a placebo and REALLY believing in it?

Well, you’re a rational creature, if you know you’re consuming a placebo it probably won’t work great. This book gave me an (ethically questionable) idea for a multi-level marketing company that would explicitly sell placebos. Customers would pay full price for the very best quality, most proven brain health supplements, but the customer agreement and marketing would make it clear that they had a 50% chance of just receiving in the mail very convincingly packaged placebo pills. If the placebos or the actual supplements didn’t work the customers could of course just take advantage of a money-back guarantee but 50% — 70% of the time the placebo effect would be well worth the money and the profits could be shared with the upline. Come to think of it, this is probably what a lot of MLM health companies are doing secretly.

The good news, as the book’s title states, is that you are the placebo, you can heal yourself with thought alone, using a specific mindfulness-meditation protocol.

Cycles of Negative Thought = Disease

One of the points that the book drives home is that our minds and bodies often get stuck in this feedback loop; our thoughts are negative and pessimistic so our bodies produce a lot of stress hormones which result in more negativity and after years or decades of this it manifests in chronic disease.

Considering that the latest scientific research in psychology estimates that about 70 percent of our thoughts are negative and redundant, the number of unconsciously created nocebo-like illnesses might be impressive indeed — certainly much higher than we realize. (p. 45)

The Body is the Mind

In my philosophical work, I’ve explained that Mitochondria are to genes what free will is to predetermination and that we humans are gifted with free will but few of us actually exercise it.

Watch Mitochondria are to Genes what Free Will is to Predetermination — Book Review of Head Strong

A point further underlined by this unconscious feedback loop between the body’s stress response and our impulsive thoughts.

Because feelings are the modus operandi of the body, the emotions you continually feel based on your automatic thinking will condition the body to memorize those emotions that are equal to the unconscious hardwired mind and brain. That means that the conscious mind isn’t really in charge. The body has subconsciously been programmed and conditioned, in a very real way, to become its own mind. (p. 68)

Visualization

The key is making your inner thoughts more real than the outer environment, because then the brain won’t know the difference between the two and will change to look as if the event has taken place.

You want to spend some time daily (ideally, as you’re going to sleep or as your waking up in bed) future casting a mental rehearsal of the future you want.

This technique is basically closing your eyes and repeatedly imagining performing an action, and mentally reviewing the future you want, all the while reminding yourself of who you no longer want to be (the old self) and who you do want to be. This process involves thinking about your future actions, mentally planning your choices, and focusing your mind on a new experience. (p. 106)

I read these sections before going to bed, as I was in bed in that in-between world before drifting off to sleep, I thought to myself:
How can I think differently at this moment?

What do I usually think about as I’m falling asleep…
What I’m going to do the next day.
How this day went.
Worrying about bills or responsibilities that I have.
The good food, or sex or entertainment I enjoyed this day.
Being thankful for my wife laying next to me.
Mulling over something intellectually stimulating that I read in a book or heard in a podcast that day.
Sometimes I’ll reminiscently meander through my memories of the past.

What I don’t often do is visualize myself accomplishing my goals. So I imagined myself moving into a nice new home with my wife, one of our goals. I imagined the items our new home would need collected in moving boxes. I imagined us waking up in our current apartment with a sense of excitement and optimism about the move. I imagined us loading the boxes of stuff up in a truck, parking in front of our new place and unloading things. I imagined riding up the elevator to our new place, unlocking the door and the sun shining through the windows of our new home. I imagined the kitchen where we would prepare our meals, the patio where we’d enjoy the weather, the living room where we’d relax, the home office where I’d work and the bedroom where we would sleep. I imagined us unpacking and arranging our stuff around our new place. I imagined us finally going to bed at night in our new place, feeling accomplished, and making love. As I visualized this day, I focused on the feelings I’d have this day.

After that, as I was drifting off to sleep, my mind seemed to reward me for my novel visualization with a mild DMT trip. In the blackness in the back of my eyelids, a cool looking wormhole-like point of light appeared, it moved towards me for a few moments and then faded out. After that, for about 10 minutes a dulled color show was put on with emerging silhouettes of geometric shapes as I drifted off to sleep.

This doesn’t always happen to me as I’m falling asleep so I took this mini-hallucination as a sign that my mind was responding to and stimulated by my future-casting thought. I’ll keep it up!

How much of this is wuwu stuff?

Around the internet you can find this book being criticized for being too wuwu and pseudo-spiritual. With the exception of one chapter, I didn’t find it too wuwu. Much of the book is documenting empirical cases of the placebo effect working wonders and then giving cogent scientific, materialist explanations as to why.

However, the 8th chapter goes into this silly idea we’ve heard from wuwu gurus (and never quantum physicists) that consciousness has a capacity to change the world outside our heads because of quantum physics. That consciousness connects to a quantum field, that all consciousness is one, somehow. That by visualizing and manifesting a particular future that we desire, we employ the “observer effect” to bring that future about. The chapter doesn’t include any footnotes to clinical trials or evidence that consciousness has a quantum component to it. I’m not an atheist materialist, I believe in a spiritual dimension of the world but I just don’t see evidence to credit quantum physics for this wide domain of spiritual phenomena and experience.

Furthermore, quantum physics is the physics of extremely small particles, why would my consciousness hacking of the quantum domain deliver me something in the macro-domain like my dream home, my dream car or heal my bad knee? It’s only ever self-gurus with books to sell that invoke this idea of quantum consciousness, I’ve watched a bunch of science documentaries and quantum physicists never mention it. I’ll also remind the quantum hopeful that quantum physics are theoretical physics, they are far from being proven science the way that gravitation or electromagnetism are. I also remain just a bit skeptical of something like quantum physics because the incentives in the current paradigm of science are so bad. If some government gives, say, $50 million to the scientists at CERN to find “the god particle” are they going to NOT find it if it’s really not there? I doubt it! For $50 million, they will find some way to find “the god particle” no matter what.

The book makes strong enough empirical arguments for the power of focused attention and intention in sculpting our future and our health, I found the quantum physics stuff a trivial flight of fantasy.

The Placebo Effect is Epigenetic Function

Before reading this book, in the almost 9 years that I’ve been studying applied neuroscience as a biohacker, I’ve wondered what the heck is the deal with the placebo effect? Why do faith and belief heal us? Are we living a simulation that we can hack by just really believing in something fantastic? The book has an answer that would satisfy the staunchest materialist, the placebo effect is part of our epigenetic function — our bodies have a fantastic capacity to fix themselves when the right genes get turned on at the right time.

The word epigenetics literally means “above the gene.” It refers to the control of genes not from within the DNA itself but from messages coming from outside the cell — in other words, from the environment. (p. 92)

Behavioral-state-dependent genes are activated during periods of high emotional arousal, stress, or different levels of awareness (including dreaming). They provide a link between our thoughts and our bodies — that is, they’re the mind-body connection. These genes offer an understanding of how we can influence our health in states of mind and body that promote well-being, physical resilience, and healing. (p. 85)

As Ernest Rossi, Ph.D., writes in The Psychobiology of Gene Expression, “Our subjective states of mind, consciously motivated behavior, and our perception of free will can modulate gene expression to optimize health.” (p. 86)

Meditation is a key piece to the puzzle of biohacking epigenetic function.

The second study, conducted in 2013, found that eliciting the relaxation response produces changes in gene expression after just one session of meditation among both novices and experienced practitioners alike (with the long-term practitioners, not surprisingly, deriving more benefit). Genes that were upregulated included those involved in immune function, energy metabolism, and insulin secretion, while genes that were downregulated included those linked to inflammation and stress. (pp. 101–102)

Now you can understand that whether it’s joyful or stressful, with every thought you think, every emotion you feel, and every event you experience, you’re acting as an epigenetic engineer of your own cells. (p. 105)

NMN — The Placebo Cofactor?

While I was reading this book, I was researching the gamechanging anti-aging supplement Nicotinamide Mononucleotide, this is a bioavailable precursor to the NAD+ molecule. NMN is a Sirtuin Biohack.

Sirtuins are genetic switches. They are chemical switches that turn on and off the genes that control metabolism, stress response, susceptibility to chronic disease, immunity, our reproductive impulses and much more.

NAD plays a crucial role in these switches working. Without sufficient NAD your genes get stuck turned on or off.

The NAD findings tie into the ongoing story about enzymes called sirtuins, which Guarente, Sinclair and other researchers have implicated as key players in conferring the longevity and health benefits of calorie restriction… A slew of other health benefits have been attributed to SIRT1 activation in hundreds of studies, including several small human trials.

One of the major causes of aging is that our genes get stuck turned on or off, and NMN is recognized by the top anti-aging researchers in the world as an epigenetic hack that empowers our sirtuins to switch on or off genes. Thus, it stands to reason that the placebo effect would be all the more potent if you’ve been using NMN.

If you’re a rational, materialist I don’t blame you for being skeptical of the healing power of belief, as it’s almost always described in silly, metaphysical terms. But, considering the emerging science of epigenetics, I urge you to take NMN and believe in it!

The book has quite a few helpful diagrams that break down the concepts visually.

The Meditation Protocol for Unleashing the Placebo Within

The book makes a bold claim, you can heal almost anything with the power of belief — unsurprisingly, the way to do this is with meditation. He presents ample anecdotal evidence that this 45–60 minute meditation process can profoundly change the body…

  1. Body scan — Moving your awareness around to different parts of the body, sensing their volume and energy.
  2. Spatial awareness — Sensing your physical place in space, in the room where you’re meditating.
  3. Universal awareness — Imagining all space in the universe.
  4. Ego death — Clearing your mind of your identity and imagining yourself as a wave in the infinity field of quantum possibility.
  5. Abandoning a limiting belief — Before the meditation, you should pick a limiting belief (I’m not smart enough, I’m ugly, my health problem holds me back, I have bad knees, I have some chronic disease, etc) to let go.
  6. Make an emotionally charged decision — Choose to let go of the past, make a decision to adopt a new positive replacement belief (I’m smart, people love me, I’m in great health, I’ve overcome my chronic disease, etc) and feel strongly about it, let the emotion change your body.
  7. Dwell in gratitude — For your better future life. Imagine it as having come to pass. Gratitude signals to your body to change.

Here on his website, he offers a guided MP3 meditation track for $6 that takes you through it. I’ve made the time in the week I finished the book to do the meditation daily, it certainly feels like it does something. It’s given me an extra degree of confidence and optimism around my limiting belief. I’ll continue with it and see what happens. I’m personally not a big fan of guided meditation tracks because I find the guy talking in my ears distracting from reaching deep meditation, I anticipate that after I listen to it a few more times I’ll be able to go through the 45-minute process without the instructions. 45 minutes is kind of a lot of time to devote daily to meditation but if it can heal almost any health problem or change your mindset powerfully it’s well worth it.

I rated this book 4 stars

I had to subtract a star for the wuwu quantum physics stuff that may or may not be true. But I understand why he wraps the message up in the language of this misunderstood field of quantum physics, many nowadays many have more faith in science than they do in anything else, even though science is often wrong about a lot — checkout my documentary about The Insidious Problem of Bad Science.

Watch The Insidious Problem of Bad Science

With science and the costly mainstream medical approach often doing more harm than good, why not put your skepticism aside for just a little while and try Dr. Dispenza’s approach to harnessing the power of the placebo within?

Originally published on LimitlessMindset.com