A Brief History of the Placebo

You Are the Placebo
Excerpt from Chapter 2

As the saying goes, desperate times call for desperate measures. When Harvard-educated American surgeon Henry Beecher was serving in World War II, he ran out of morphine. Near the end of the war, morphine was in short supply in military field hospitals, so this situation wasn’t uncommon. At the time, Beecher was about to operate on a badly wounded soldier. He was afraid that without a painkiller, the soldier might go into fatal cardiovascular shock. What happened next astounded him.

Without skipping a beat, one of the nurses filled a syringe with saline and gave the soldier a shot, just as if she were injecting him with morphine. The soldier calmed down right away. He reacted as though he’d actually received the drug, even though all he’d received was a squirt of saltwater. Beecher went ahead with the operation, cutting into the soldier’s flesh, making what repairs were necessary, and sewing him back up, all without anesthesia. The soldier felt little pain and did not go into shock. How could it be, Beecher wondered, that saltwater could stand in for morphine?

After that stunning success, whenever the field hospital ran out of morphine, Beecher did the same thing again: injected saline, just as if he were injecting morphine. The experience convinced him of the power of placebos, and when he returned to the United States after the war, he began to study the phenomenon.

In 1955, Beecher made history when he authored a clinical review of 15 studies published by the Journal of the American Medical Association that not only discussed the huge significance of placebos, but also called for a new model of medical research that would randomly assign subjects to receive active medications or placebos—what we now refer to as randomized, controlled trials—so that this powerful placebo effect wouldn’t distort results.

The idea that we can alter physical reality through thought, belief, and expectation alone (whether we are fully aware of what we’re doing or not) certainly didn’t start in that World War II field hospital. The Bible is filled with stories of miraculous healings, and even in modern times, people regularly flock to places such as Lourdes in southern France (where a 14-year-old peasant girl named Bernadette had a vision of the Virgin Mary in 1858), leaving behind their crutches, braces, and wheelchairs as proof that they’ve been healed. Similar miracles also have been reported in Fátima, Portugal (where three shepherd children saw an apparition of the Virgin Mary in 1917), and in connection with a traveling statue of Mary carved for the 30th anniversary of the apparition. The statue was based on the description given by the oldest of the three children, who by then had become a nun, and it was blessed by Pope Pius XII before it was sent traveling around the world.

Faith healing is certainly not confined to the Christian tradition. The late Indian guru Sathya Sai Baba, widely considered by his followers to be an avatar—a manifestation of a deity—was known to manifest holy ash known as vibhuti from the palms of his hands. This fine gray ash has been said to have the power to heal many physical, mental, and spiritual ills when either eaten or applied to the skin as a paste. Tibetan lamas are also said to have healing powers, using their breath to heal by blowing on the sick.

Even French and English kings reigning between the 4th and 9th centuries used the laying on of hands to cure their subjects. King Charles II of England was known to be particularly adept at this, performing the practice about 100,000 times.

What is it that causes such so-called miraculous events, whether the instrument of healing is faith in a deity alone or belief in the extraordinary powers of a person, an object, or even a place deemed sacred or holy? What is the process by which faith and belief can bring about such profound effects? Might how we assign meaning to a ritual—whether that ritual is saying the rosary, rubbing a pinch of holy ash onto our skin, or taking a new miracle drug prescribed by a trusted physician—play a role in the placebo phenomenon? What if the internal state of mind of the people who received these cures was influenced or altered by the conditions in their external environment (a person, place, or thing at the proper time) to such a degree that their new state of mind could actually effect real physical changes?

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2 thoughts on “A Brief History of the Placebo

  1. I grew up a traditional Christian. As an adult, I saw numerous healings take place by laying on of hands. I am no longer involved in that tradition and even though I am around deeply spiritual people all of the time, I do not see the “miracles” I witnessed for 30+ years. I have never thought about that until this moment. I have wondered, and still do, what faith healing is. I believe we can heal with our minds but where does God come in?

    I attended several of Dr. Joe’s workshops in Denver and what he teaches has changed my life. I have recommended his books to many people. I practiced his meditation daily for about 1 1/2 years and during one particular meditation, I saw myself literally “spooning with possibilities” out in the field of possibilities. It was a fun vision. At this point, I do other meditations as well but continue to practice what Dr. Joe teaches and those truths continue to become part of who I am.