10 Astonishing Demonstrations of the Placebo Effect

Your brain is a powerful part of your body that can have a significant impact on your mental state and is known as a strong indicator of intelligence. By reading this sentence, your brain works overtime to help you identify and understand each letter and how it can form words and ideas. But did you know that your brain can significantly impact your physical state? The power of the placebo effect, otherwise known as a beneficial outcome resulting from a person’s anticipation, can affect a person’s tastebuds, muscles, and blood pressure and can even make your brain think you’re dying.

In this list, we’ll marvel over the fascinating ways that your brain can be affected by the placebo effect. The power of this mind-blowing effect has been recorded since the 1600s, and its mystifying impact has occurred in different settings. The mystery of the placebo effect is one that scientists still scratch their heads at, but these 10 instances of the placebo effect’s power will make your brain itch. We hope your brain is ready to do some mental exercise!

10 Elegant Water or Tap Water

There is a trendy restaurant in California with a unique menu. Instead of a wine list, they offer gourmet water brands ranging from four to eight dollars. For instance, their L’eau Du Robinet. This French water’s natural minerals and nutrients are still at their most potent. Its aggressive flavor and brash attitude make it a perfect complement to meat and poultry. This water is delicious, revitalizing, refreshing, and completely fake. In fact, L’eau Du Robinet means tap water in French!

This premium water, among others, was featured on Penn and Teller’s show BS, and customers drank them up. Little did they know each luxury water brand came from the same pristine location: the restaurant’s garden hose. Yet this didn’t stop the customers from buying the waters and giving stellar reviews, saying it was more flavorful and clean than tap water. If our brains can trick us into thinking water from a garden hose is delicious, maybe rethink splurging on that top-shelf bottled water![1]

9 Exercising without Exercise

If the gym doesn’t sound appealing to you, you may be in luck! Scientists from the Harvard Department of Psychology divided a group of hotel maids into two groups; one group was told that their daily tasks at work qualified as exercise, while the other group was told nothing. Little did the first group of maids know the “exercise” they were doing was nonexistent.

Despite their jobs not actually providing them a workout, in just one month after being told this information, the doctors observed a decrease in their systolic blood pressure, a decline in their weight, a reduction in their body mass index, and a decrease in their waist-to-hip ratio. Not to mention, the maids’ blood pressure alone dropped 10% on average.

However, this isn’t to say that you can lay down on the couch eating pizza all day, believe that the pizza will lead to weight loss, and end up skinnier (no matter how amazing that might sound). This study shows that the power of our brains may be able to extend to our physical fitness![2]

8 Surgery Pain, but without an Operation

This example may make your jaw drop if you’ve ever struggled with muscle or joint pain! A study published by the New England Journal of Medicine in 2002 conducted a randomized trial on 180 patients diagnosed with knee osteoarthritis. They were randomly assigned to one of three treatments: surgery, cleaning, or the placebo procedure.

In the placebo procedure, no actual surgery or cleaning was performed; the surgeon performed three one-centimeter incisions into the patient’s skin and splashed saline to simulate the cleaning sounds. Regardless of their group, the patients were unaware of the treatment they would receive, and the results were astounding. The placebo group had significantly lower levels of pain than the operation group. Even more astonishing, this group still had better or the same effects as them after TWO YEARS!

This astounding study was one of many that still boggle scientists and motivate them to pursue further research into the placebo phenomenon. Placebos are miraculous and come at a low price. In the osteoarthritis study, the non-placebo procedures cost up to $5,000 for an operation versus the much cheaper placebo procedure, producing the same, if not better, effect.

If our brains can relieve physical pain long-term without the need for expensive surgery procedures, imagine what other benefits we can discover in the future![3]

7 Placebos: Better Than the Real Treatment

If our brains are capable of relieving pain, there may be a chance they could do a better job than actual painkillers! NPR reports a study done by Ted Kaptchuk experimenting on people suffering from lower back pain. Half of the group were assigned to a placebo, the others to a real treatment.

Unlike the studies mentioned above, the placebo-treated group was told they were given an inactive placebo treatment. Even though these people knew they were taking placebos, the placebo-treated group reported that their pain levels decreased by 30%, compared to the non-placebo group’s 9%. The placebo-treated group reported a 29% reduction in difficulty in performing daily activities, while the control group saw no change.

If we’re able to capitalize on this power with further research from scientists, people may be able to save hundreds, if not thousands of dollars on pain relief! [4]

6 Placebos: Thomas Jefferson Approved

It’s hard to know exactly when the placebo effect was first utilized, but there is a document that gives a slight clue. Even better, it came from one of America’s Founding Fathers: Thomas Jefferson! In 1807, the infamous Jefferson wrote a letter to a doctor named Caspar Wistar about a successful physician he knew, stating, “One of the most successful physicians I have ever known has assured me that he used more bread pills, drops of colored water, and powders of hickory ashes than of all other medicines put together.”

It’s crazy to hear of the older ways of using placebos in treatments, and it’s good to know that the power of the placebo has lived on throughout history.[5]

5 Overdosed on Placebo

An unintended result of the placebo effect is a risk that some experiments have had unfortunate run-ins with. Our brains are capable of tricking us into thinking that we will experience the negative side effects of the drug we believe we are taking. They even have the power to convince our brain that we’re dying! In 2012, Smithsonian Magazine reported that a man involved in a study for a new brand of antidepressants swallowed an entire bottle of his prescribed medication, all 26 pills, in a suicide attempt.

He couldn’t breathe, his blood pressure was dangerously low, and he was near death. The doctors couldn’t figure out how the alleged drug was poisoning him until a few inquiries revealed the man had overdosed on placebos. The sugar pills had actually worked, improving his mood and convincing him that he’d been given the real medication. This placebo effect led to an inverse effect as he began to approach death; however, when informed that he had only taken sugar pills, he immediately recovered. It’s mind-melting to think how our brain is powerful enough to either help you recover or bring you near death.[6]

4 Got Back Pain?

Our brains, while powerful, are unpredictable and counterintuitive at times. The way information is presented when given to a patient, even down to the wording of instructions, can affect how vulnerable they are to harmful placebo effects. In a Georg August University study, they assigned participants suffering from back pain to a leg flexion test. They told half that they could experience an increase in pain levels, even though this was not true.

However, the group that was told the false information reported doubled pain levels after the leg flexion test and performed fewer leg flexions than the group that was told neutral information. It’s important to be wary of instigating a negative response to a placebo, but this doesn’t diminish the positive impacts that we’ve seen placebos generate![7]

3 Honesty Is Effective!

Although placebos are commonly utilized while not telling patients they’re receiving a placebo, some instances have shown that openness and honesty can bring about the same effects. In a 2018 study documented by the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, a group of cancer survivors suffering from cancer-related fatigue were randomly grouped to receive a placebo and were explicitly told that it was a placebo. There was also a control group that did not receive anything.

Eric Zhou, Ph.D., of Dana-Farber, stated that the group receiving the placebo “reported significantly improved cancer-related fatigue, while the control group’s fatigue remained constant.” This study demonstrates the human brain’s power to change how we perceive and approach physical pain and ailments and the potential benefits our brains can bring.[8]

2 Drunk on Placebo

There are a lot of sensations that your brain can trick you into feeling, and the sensation of being drunk is not excluded from this list. In a 2003 study by Seema L. Assefi and Maryanne Gary, subjects were given plain tonic water to drink. Half of the subjects in the study were told it was a vodka tonic, and the other half knew they were drinking tonic water.

After drinking the tonic water, the participants were directed to take a memory test. Those who thought they were drinking a vodka tonic showed an increased confidence level yet were much more easily misled by incorrect information, and these are correlated with the same sensations that being drunk brings about. This experiment’s results demonstrate that even thinking that alcohol is being consumed can cause the brain to emulate the feelings of being drunk and further demonstrate the placebo effect’s power.[9]

1 The Placebo Effect in Nature

Poison ivy leaves are a well-known and well-avoided natural phenomenon, and its irritating and itchy effects are dreaded among most Americans. Interestingly, there is a Japanese lacquer tree that contains the same irritants and is equally avoided. A Japanese medical study from 1962 conducted an experiment on 13 students sensitive to the Japanese lacquer tree leaves.

The students were each exposed to the irritating Japanese lacquer tree leaf on one arm and a harmless leaf on the other arm. However, the students were told that the Japanese lacquer tree leaf was harmless and that the harmless leaf was poisonous.

Interestingly enough, all 13 students broke out in a rash from the harmless leaf that they believed was poisonous, and only two of the students broke out in a rash from the Japanese lacquer tree leaf despite all students being hypersensitive to its irritants. This shows that even allergies and sensitivities can be negated by our brains, which is a mind-blowing concept! When visualizing the power of the placebo, it makes us think of the phrase from Mean Girls: “The limit does not exist”![10]


Written by Joanna C.

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