The Neuroscience Behind Placebo Effect

What makes placebo effect powerful?

Placebo Effect

I still remember when my mother kissed my bumped knee and I felt better. I thought that the pain subsided because of my mother’s care and presence. Like other children, I love it when my mother was around in times when I had a fever. Her touch alone was enough to ease the pain.

But what really happened? Of course, a motherly touch does significant relief to a child’s painful physical experience. But there’s more than that.

A psychological phenomenon called placebo effect does something miraculous behind the scene. In the instance above, I felt better not due to my mother’s touch, but due to my mind’s suggestion.

A placebo effect happens when you think that something is real while in fact, it is fake. This phenomenon commonly happens in medical laboratory experiments. Researchers use this effect to test the effectiveness of a certain drug.

Most studies involve two groups of participants. One group would be given the real drug while the other would receive the fake one. However, the second group would be told that the drug is real.

Then a researcher will quantify the outcome of the two treatments. Interestingly, in most studies, participants who believed that the drug was real earned most of the benefits from taking the drug.

In other words, our perception plays an important role that boosts the effectiveness of the treatment. But how our mind forms placebo effect is something that remains unclear.

However, scientists have identified the contributing factors of this phenomenon: conscious expectation and learning.

In my example above, I felt better when my mother embraced me not because of her touch alone but because I believed that her caress would alleviate my pain. Scientists found that in the event like this, the brain releases endorphins (the natural painkiller) to ease the pain. Therefore, the comfort was the result of positive expectation.

Because the result was positive, I always long for my mother’s presence every time I was sick. This is the learning process similar to Pavlov’s concept of classical conditioning.

Because of conscious expectation and learning, placebo effect thrives in almost every one of us. Some people though may not experience this phenomenon such as those who suffer from Alzheimer’s disease.

The reason being is that, people with Alzheimer’s disease experience cell degeneration in the frontal area of their brain. This part of the brain largely responsible for the formulation of conscious expectation and learning.

However, there are still questions that bothered neuroscientists. No one knows how exactly or how long placebo effect will work. Along with the scientific community, I hope that future research will be able to reveal the hidden truth of the dynamic of the human mind.

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