Because we are still learning about the human body, the placebo effect is not completely understood. Researchers have discovered that people can be trained to believe in a placebo even after they’re told it isn’t real medicine.
In a new study that was published in The Journal of Pain, lead researcher UCB graduate student Scott Schafer turned up a ceramic heating element just enough to cause pain, but not burn the skin on the forearms of participants; he then applied an analgesic gel (placebo) to relieve the pain and then applied the heat again.
Why Does The Placebo Effect Work?
The placebo gel was simply Vaseline with blue food coloring, and the heat was turned down when it was applied.
Medical questions were asked and information on the gel was given to help with the illusion. Regular Vaseline, without blue food coloring, was used as a control.
When Schafer set the heat on “medium,” participants reported less pain when they were given the blue Vaseline as opposed to the regular Vaseline—despite the heat remaining constant. After one session, some were told that it was a placebo, and Schafer found that it no longer worked, according to IFL Science.
However, for those who went four sessions with the blue Vaseline before being told it was a placebo, it was remarkably still effective. It appears that they associated the blue Vaseline with the reduced pain so much that they trusted its effects over Schafer telling them it wasn’t real, having felt the benefits regularly. It suggests people can be trained to believe that a placebo works as well as a drug, IFL added.
Does the placebo effect work on you?
“They believed the treatment was effective in relieving pain,” Schafer said. “After this process, they had acquired the placebo effect. We tested them with and without the treatment on medium intensity. They reported less pain with the placebo.”
The study was conducted by a team from the University of Colorado Boulder (UCB), and in a statement the University said that the findings suggest that reinforcing treatment cues with positive outcomes can create placebo effects that are independent of reported expectations for pain relief. Professor Tor Wager, the senior author of the study, explains: “We’re still learning a lot about the critical ingredients of placebo effects.
“What we think now is that they require both belief in the power of the treatment, and experiences that are consistent with those beliefs. Those experiences make the brain learn to respond to the treatment as a real event. After the learning has occurred, your brain can still respond to the placebo even if you no longer believe in it.”
Why the placebo effect scares big pharma—interview with Dr. Wayne B. Jonas:
If a placebo works instead of a real drug, is that not better? Maybe for your body, but it’s not so good for the pharmaceutical companies.