When CBS’s 60 Minutes did a story about placebos being as effective as antidepressants, I thought viewers probably raised an eyebrow and listened a little more attentively, because this wasn’t someone’s personal opinion but mainstream media sharing cutting-edge research information from Irving Kirsch, an Associate Director of the Program in Placebo Studies at Harvard.
The airing of this story, along with an article that I read in the Wall Street Journal by Shirley Wang about the effect placebos have on issues like weight loss, dementia, fertility, and depression – real life issues that I know people face every day – really got my attention. Wang states, “…more and more research suggests there is more than a fleeting boost to be gained from placebos. A particular mind-set or belief about one's body or health may lead to improvements in disease symptoms as well as changes in appetite, brain chemicals, and even vision, several recent studies have found, highlighting how fundamentally the mind and body are connected.”
It’s interesting to note that Kirsch also commented on the connection between the body and the mind when he found that the expectation of healing was so powerful that it alleviated all but the most severe symptoms of depression.
I also found expectations affecting the body in a study published in Psychological Science in 2007. Hotel attendants who were told they were getting a good workout at their jobs showed a significant decrease in weight, blood pressure, and body fat after four weeks on the job. This was in contrast to employees who did the same work but weren’t informed of any exercise benefit. They showed no change in weight although neither group reported changes in physical activity or diet during this same period.
So what’s new in this discussion about placebos? For one thing, I’ve seen more scientific research to support the effect of placebos, and researchers continue to study how the placebo effect works. Why the underlying interest in this effect? To me, the answer is that individuals may have better control of their own health by understanding how mind affects the body.