A journey into the science of mind over body

Jo Marchant, speaking at the advaya event 'Beyond Limits'. In this talk, Jo uses the example of the placebo to illustrate the potential of our outlook on our medical health and wellbeing, or more specifically how the way we think and feel about medical treatments can dramatically influence how our bodies respond.

Accordingly, simply believing that a treatment will work may trigger the desired effect even if the treatment is inert – such as a sugar pill. For a wide range of conditions, from depression to Parkinson’s, osteoarthritis and multiple sclerosis, it is clear that the placebo response is far from imaginary. Trials have shown measurable changes such as the release of natural painkillers, altered neuronal firing patterns, lowered blood pressure or heart rate and boosted immune response, all depending on the beliefs of the patient. There is even evidence that some drugs work by amplifying a placebo effect – when people are not aware that they have been given the drugs, they stop working.

On the flip side, merely believing that a drug has harmful side effects can make you suffer them. The nocebo effect, as it’s known, can even kill (New Scientist, 13 May 2009, p 30). It has always been assumed that the placebo effect only works if people are conned into believing that they are getting an actual active drug. But now it seems this may not be true. Belief in the placebo effect itself – rather than a particular drug – might be enough to encourage our bodies to heal….


Jo Marchant

Award-winning science journalist and author, genetics and medical microbiology specialist. Jo Marchant trained as a scientist and has a PhD in genetics and medical microbiology from St Bartholomew’s Hospital Medical College in London, and an MSc in Science Communication from Imperial College London.

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