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Harnessing the Placebo Effect - What if it isn’t a trick?

by Sam Perren

1482 words (6 minute read)

Originally Published: 2019-02-08


Gary Greenberg is a physiotherapist and author with a clinical practice, and he was recently a guest on Russ Roberts program EconTalk, and they were discussing Gary’s new article on the placebo effect. I’ve paraphrased parts of the talk, and added some insights I gained, tools that I hope to use to make me “the best version of myself” and “make the world a better place."

Whatever the treatment, at the level of primary care, medical care involves being empathic with people who are suffering. There is a theory that for a physician to do his work, (s)he needs to get into the head of the patient.  When you are empathic, you set off a series of events that may modulate the body’s own healing abilities. 

We can all assist in the health of one-another if we show more empathy toward each other.  I must admit that my empathetic reserves were depleted from years of being a police officer, and I fell into the mental rut of “blaming the victim.”  While people are responsible for their actions, and are frequently the authors of their own misfortune, that doesn't quantify their suffering any less than a “true victim” who actually “deserves” empathy.  It’s not just altruistic sentiments here, but also some keen self-interest, because carrying around feelings of disgust for fellow human beings is a heavy load to bear, similar to withholding forgiveness for someone who wronged you and has long forgotten about the incident.   Dragging resentment around blocks the ability to create, so practicing empathy can help increase results in life and business.  The takeaway I have is to not only practice gratitude and empathy, but to express it to other people, and I think one of the most effective ways to do so is through hand written notes, of which I’ll be working to do more of. 

The ritual of going to the doctor’s office, for a a certain group of people with a certain group of illnesses, the ritual part of the treatment becomes very important. 

This makes me think that the tradition from my wife’s side of pinning a wool sock around the neck of a sick child might actually work!  It’s part of a ritual of care that should be totally useless, but it’s a physical manifestation of the empathy stated above. Empathy in action!

The more you increase the population of your study, what happens is the placebo effect beings to recede, which makes you question if it exists at all.  The explanation  we have not been able to detect a strong enough signal to know in what direction to move to be able to exploit the placebo effect in the standard way we exploit other medical knowledge.  That may be because the placebo effect is not something we can study very well with the instruments of science. The placebo effect was first identified when attempting to discover if a guy named Mesmer was legitimate.  Mesmer was practicing weird seance-like treatment in Paris in the late 18th century that was very effective for people with fatigue, malaise, and odd paralysis.  Leading scientists including Benjamin Franklin determined that Mesmerism was all in the imagination, and the only useful things that were happening was when the imagination wasn't’t involved, and that was the birth of the placebo effect. There is therefore a mismatch built in from the beginning about how we investigate illness and healing on one hand, and how identify placebo effects on the other.  It could be that looking for placebo effects with the instruments of science could be like looking for feather with a magnet.  

Just because you don’t understand why something works (various alternative medicines), doesn't mean you shouldn’t try it in conjunction with standard medical treatments. You might just harness the placebo effect to your benefit. 

Confirmation bias and overconfidence may be a fancy way to maintain better brain health and overall health. Confidence is probably one of the most poorly understood and most important aspects of our daily lives.  It has strange effects, the idea of a "confidence man” or that confidence is somehow related to fraud, and this ability to believe (credulity) is crucial and it’s not necessary a bad thing, but it’s definitely a thing. Credulity is harmful if you’re avoiding certain medical treatments that you desperately need. It may be good to be credulous about other things that aren't scientifically known but may help you.  Dishonesty in the service of making people better (see book The Noble Lie) seems like dubious medical treatment, but if it works, is it bad?  The Book of Woe is about the DSM and how it enhances the power of psychiatrists by coding common experiences (ie. grief) into neurosis.  This idea is resisted by psychiatrists  who argue the DSM is important because “people’s confidence in psychiatric treatment is critical to people getting better.”  The idea that all negative experiences are bad and should be avoided is flawed. Some experience shouldn't be altered by a medical intervention except in a case where there is a danger to a person, and part of life experiencing and enduring those challenges.

Challenges in life is how we grow, and each experience is an opportunity to grow your confidence. To quote a mentor of mine who ended his career educating others and sold his business just as I was starting mine, Don R. Campbell said the best entrepreneurial advice he ever got was “Guard your confidence.” 

 Overall takeaway:  It may be true, that laughter is the best medicine. 

On a bit of a tangent, the idea that a negative attitude and a mindset of illness could contribute to poor health is fleshed out a bit more in a recent presentation I browsed through.

Peter Temple of World Cycles Institute (Calgary AB) put on a recent webinar talking about the state of the world, and claims to have sorted out the state of everything including climate change and the financial system based on analyzing history, charting major events, identifying cycles, and subsequently predicting the future.  Now, I believe predicting the future is dubious at best, and some of what Peter talks about is pseudoscience, but the true cause of climate change is a complex questions, and  Peter does a good job describing the financial system, and gets me thinking about how I could prepare myself in case there is a failure in the financial system or the food supply. His tour of Canada’s financial system is very insightful, and is worth a watch for the uninitiated: https://youtu.be/umg4jcvOvOs?t=995.




He talks about how we are a double entry debt based banking system, and he explains fractional reserve banking (in US there was a 10% reserve, in Canada there is NONE).  It’s a “house of cards financial system.” The video goes on to talk about how food prices will skyrocket, and pandemics go through society when we have dry periods, and when it gets colder, this is correlated to less food being grown.  The reason for this is that psychologically they become very negative and that impacts them physically. 


Now, I don’t buy all the alarmism people like Peter tend to sow, however I do agree that we have runaway inflation and I think that is the #1 risk for most people.  That's why I buy, teach and preach owning real estate!

Why am I not worried about the future?  Not only am actively planning for it, and being open minded about the possibilities (many people would dismiss Peter's statements without considering "what if he's right..."), but also for one very important fact.  I'm not worried because I know that people are problem solving machines, and we are getting better and better at solving problems.  Don’t believe me? Check out this TedTalk:


The final line expands on the idea that “the 20th century has shown enormous cognitive reserves  in ordinary people that we have now realized.” James Flynn closes the talk with a references Kipling’s (sexist and racist) poem  The Ladies:

“the Colonel's Lady an' Judy
O'Grady Are sisters under their skins !"


Final Thoughts
Sit with the questions for a while, and you may be surprised with the result!  What are you doing to make yourself better?  How will you become "inflation proof”?  How can you exploit the placebo effect to improve your life?

Until next time, have a great day and make it count!


About the author: Sam Perren has helped dozens of investment partners acquire real estate, representing over $16Million CAD in purchases with rental income of over $100,000/mo. If you'd like access to Sam's "deal of the week" please click here.  To ask real estate related questions (or any other), click here.

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