Did you know that the mind has the power to direct a placebo to ease the symptoms of illness just as well as a pharmaceutical product? And get this: EVEN IF THE PATIENT KNOWS IT’S A PLACEBO!
Now just wait, all you cynics out there… I can relate to your disbelief. If you are fuzzy about what a placebo is, it’s a “medical” remedy with no scientifically-proven power to relieve symptoms or cure an illness.
Image courtesy of debspoons at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
According to an article in May’s Smithsonian Magazine, (see article here) author Robert Anthony Siegel has been taking placebo capsules prescribed by Professor John Kelley and experiencing relief from anxiety symptoms, panic attacks and insomnia that were causing his chronic writer’s block.
Kelley, a psychology professor at Endicott College, worked two months with Siegel to develop what they call an “open label” placebo one-man trial. “Open label” indicates that the patient is aware he is being prescribed a placebo.
“The healing force
‘passes through the placebo’
having started with someone
who wants you to get well.”
Professor Kelley told Siegel that together they would design a placebo that would, over time, alleviate the symptoms Siegel was experiencing. To begin, Kelley asked Siegel, “What color would you assign to writing well?” Siegel replied “Gold.” Their collaboration resulted in a capsule (capsules appear more scientific); they decided on a short-acting dosage – two capsules would take effect in two hours. Kelley composed a set of instructions that outlined the dosage, what the placebos would do, and how to take them.
The capsules were then ordered from the pharmacist. To increase “expectancy” in Siegel’s mind, he was given a prescription; the pharmacy delivered a large official-looking amber bottle filled with yellow capsules, (as close to gold as they could get), with instructions, a prescription label, and a receipt from the pharmacy, just like other prescriptions.
Although the cost was a ridiculous $405 since placebos are not covered by insurance, Professor Kelley explained the cost would only increase the value of the placebo in Siegel’s mind.
This practice, combined with an empathetic and compassionate caregiver such as Professor Kelley, trained Siegel’s mind to concentrate on healing rather than on the problems he was having. “The healing force ‘passes through the placebo’ having started with someone who wants you to get well.”
So how did Kelley get the idea for this “open label” placebo program? The professor had come across a study claiming that antidepressants work just as well as psychotherapy. Then he found a study that claimed antidepressants work no better than placebos! What did that say about psychotherapy? Kelley wanted to explore the idea that the placebo is a form of psychotherapy, engaging the human mind in a cycle of self-healing.
Professor Kelley is deputy director of Harvard University’s Program in Placebo Studies and Therapeutic Encounter, or PIPS, the first program in the world devoted to the inter-disciplinary study of the placebo effect.
This program has the potential to give relief in more ways than one!