Placebo effect – an underrated healer


Quick summary: I am going to suggest that we might be able to use mindfulness to gain control over the ‘placebo effect’ thereby positively influencing recovery of physical and mental disturbances. In scientific investigation it is always important to rule out the placebo effect when studying the effects of an intervention. To do so, researchers will commonly give one group a sugar pill or some other benign intervention, and the other group will be given the medicine or the treatment. In most cases, those who were given the sugar pill show health improvements… let me explain, if a person is told that they are receiving a pill that will help cure an illness and they are given a sugar pill instead of the actual medicine, they will generally show signs of improvement related to the illness. What does this mean?  Do we human’s have an untapped ability to heal ourselves? What abstraction does a sugar pill represent… hope, belief? If we believed or held hope that we could cure our own illnesses, could we learn to mentally heal ourselves? I would suggest that the answer is yes… the placebo effect is too consistent to ignore… in short, people in control groups across the planet that are experiencing recovery without medical intervention are healing themselves. How can we learn to increase the effect of the ‘placebo effect’?

Perhaps we look at the placebo as a cognitive trick… scientists trick people into believing that they are given a healing agent when that healing agent does not physically exist… yet at the same time, some healing agent must exist as the patients typically show improvement. What is the healing agent inherent in the placebo?

The healing agent is a belief… if a person believes that they will recover than they can recover.

Hope is inherent in this belief… without hope they could believe that they were given a healing agent, but they will not necessarily think that it will be successful for them unless that belief also carries a degree of hope… hope that recovery is possible.


Hope is another curious variable in recovery…

In both medical interventions and with psychotherapeutic interventions, hope effects outcome. Both the client’s hope and the clinician’s hope, related to the recovery of the client, effects the outcome of the intervention.

What is the point of all this?

We could positively influence recovery of mental and physical disturbances by intentionally using the so call ‘placebo effect’ as a healing intervention.

I am conscious of how this news might seem insensitive to some people… it is possible to interpret what I am saying as somewhat absolute – as if I am suggesting – “if your loved believed and had hope that they could recover, then they would not have died.” This would indeed be insensitive for me to suggest… Death is unavoidable and inexplicable… I am not suggesting that premature deaths are entirely related to hopelessness. I am suggesting that if we as a collective were able to utilize the placebo effect in an intentional way, we would be able to increase the amount of people who experience recovery.

The first time that I heard this point was at a seminar concerning mindfulness… mindfulness teaches a person how to live within the present moment.

Part of being Mindful involves noticing your thoughts without judgment… in this process a person can reach a degree of separation from the chattering of their brain.

By using mindfulness we learn to not over-identify with the thoughts of the brain.


I do not claim to have the answer… yet… as to exactly how we can intentionally use the placebo effect to aid in recovery, but I have an idea of what the fist step would be.


It is likely that the 1st step is to gain a greater control over the brain and your thinking patterns… to be mindful


–         Note – when I say ‘over identification with the brain’, I am talking about how the brain tricks us into believing that we literally are the thoughts that the brain transmits to our consciousness.


–         Mindfulness can help you see that you are perhaps something deeper or more profound than the thoughts that your brain creates… and ruminates on.


–         mindfulness can also help you to live in the moment by bringing a person into awareness of the brain’s tendency to focus on the past and the future… most people spend the majority of there time living within the their thoughts… they are either ruminating over something that happened in the past, or they are ruminating over something that could happen in the future. 


–         By living within our thoughts about the past and the future we over identify with our brain and lose a degree of control… within this pattern it would be difficult to have control over your hope or beliefs, which would  ultimately make it difficult to control the’ placebo effect’. 

In order to gain more control over your brain you might fist attempt to separate yourself (figuratively) from your brain.


When you watch your thoughts… who is the one watching those thoughts? Who is the observer? Your answer could be anything from ‘metacognition’ to ‘the spirit’… the truth is that it does not really matter what you believe the ‘observer’ to be for our purposed related to the ‘placebo effect’.

If the observer could control the brain, then the observer could intentionally create the hopeful belief system which seems to aid in recovery.


The 1st thing that is taught in mindfulness training is the skill of observing the breath… from here people are often taught how to take an automated activity (breathing) and add intentionality (you consciously breath in and out as you desire)… the point here is that breathing is automatic until you choose for it not to be…


What if the same was true for the brain… for our cognitions? Our thoughts are more automatic and outside of our control than we sometimes like to believe. Perhaps with mindfulness we could gain control of the brain just as we can take control of the breath… we could turn off the autopilot is some respects.


So the answer for today is – By involving yourself in Mindfulness practices you can weaken your over identification with your brain… by doing so you might gain a degree of control over your brain… perhaps if you had that control you could intentionally create the ‘placebo’ effect. 


Faith and doubt are thoughts… how might we control these…

William Hambleton Bishop is a practicing therapist in Steamboat Springs Colorado.
William Hambleton Bishop
William Hambleton Bishop is a practicing therapist in Steamboat Springs Colorado.

One thought on “Placebo effect – an underrated healer

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