I had my first experience with placebos when I was very young. This is one of my very first memories. Whenever I had a minor injury as a child, my mother would place a Haribo® Gummy Bear on the boo-boo, the site of pain. She would tell me that “this gummy bear helps against pain” and that I was allowed to eat the gummy bear when the pain was gone. She told me that green gummy bears were especially powerful. Tears dried on the spot. I experienced immediate pain relief. Today I am still surprised about how pain can turn into just a fading memory, and how attention shifts to some other attractor. My placebo-experience catalyzed a shift from pain and anxiety to relief and restored well-being. It all took place in a caring environment that made it absolutely safe to get better. I still remember and can recall that feeling of absolute trust. I like this story. It is a warm childhood memory. I rely on it often. When I saw the Gummy Bear Effect later with my own children it became curious to find out if such a healing experience could be made available to all of us.
The Gummy Bear Effect is a story that also raises questions that are at the heart of placebo research. Here is one:
What promotes self-healing?
When we are in a state of sickness, does the experience of a caring, assuring environment signal our mind and body permission to switch-off stress and to turn-on symptom-relief and self-healing? Is there an On/Off switch to our immune system?
I’ll explore these questions, and also offer practical ideas, tools and designs that draw on what we can learn from family traditions, good patient-doctor relationships, and clinical studies. I’ll describe safe ways to create and benefit from placebo effects.
As I write this I have people in mind like myself who grew up in a caring environment and then transitioned into a world illuminated by the bright light of powerful medical brands.
Let’s explore how we can use pure placebos to harvest medical brand power in a safe and honest way.
Endorphins are powerful and safe opioids that the body produces. Endorphins bind to opioid receptors in the brain. The same receptors are also used by opioid medications.
Recent studies using the brain-imaging technology showed that taking placebos leads to neurobiological patterns in the brain that can also be observed when powerful pain relievers are given. Petrovic et al (2002), demonstrated that the same regions of the brain are activated when patients receive an opioid pain reliever (remifentanil) or when patients take a placebo. Similar brain imaging studies by Zubieta et al (2005) and Eippert et al (2009) also showed that placebos trigger brain responses that ameliorate pain.
For those who are interested in learning more about fascinating field of brain imaging in Neuroscience, the studies described here used two techniques to generate high definition, three dimensional images of brain function:
Positron Emission Tomography (PET)
PET measures metabolism and the flow of blood to different parts of the brain. PET is a non-invasive method that also allows for some movement during the scan, but it does expose patients to radiation from a biologically active tracer molecule.
Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (FMRI)
Similar to PET scans, FMRI measures blood-flow in the brain. FMRI has the advantage that a radioactive tracer molecule it not needed. The image resolution of FMRI is also better than PET. However, since patients need to remain still during FMRI scans, this imaging method cannot be used for experiments where, e.g., patients need to read out words during a scan. Redesigned equipment and advancements in computing power are likely to overcome this barrier in the future.
But what to do? Just stay in touch with the world and your Self to guide your action. I didn’t say it’s easy.
So I am making placebos. Anyone can make a placebo, right? Some say, “Placebos are sugar pills.” A sugar pill can be a placebo. Just take a Tic Tac.
I don’t agree. But Tic Tac is a useful example for exploring what makes a good placebo. Tic Tac come in pill-shape reminding us of taking-medicine. And Tic Tac have a strong, meaning-conveying brand. It’s just that the brand message is about pleasure – and not so much about reducing pain (or other bothersome symptoms). Yes, I might take a Tic Tac to distract myself. But I would not expect the Take-a-Tic-Tac-Experience to trigger my body to release powerful endorphines that relief pain. And Tic Tac taste sweet. Real placebos don’t taste sweet, right?
Turns out expectations matter when it comes to placebos. What you might not have expected – until right now, is that placebos can work even when we knowingly take a placebo. Well, now you know. The human mind is amazing. Once it knows something (like, placebos can have real effect) it will start working with that knowledge.
So I let the subconscious mind do its work. Here is a thought that just came to mind. Love. I know it’s “only in your mind”. Yet love makes your brain release oxytocin, a hormone with real – life changing – impact. May be taking a placebo is a declaration of love? In form of the placebo I ingest a powerful message directed to my future Self. The Self precisely 3 minutes from now… Before I get carried away with great expectations, here is what I did:
We made Zeebo Relief – the Honest Placebo pill that has all the features of a great placebo. Check it out here: www.zeeboeffect.com