Advance Performance | The “Magic” Of The Placebo Effect
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The “Magic” Of The Placebo Effect

The “Magic” Of The Placebo Effect

The Placebo is a vital part of drug trials, to prove whether the medication is viable and has a measurable effect on patients. If the results are virtually the same, the active drug is not working – the patients are feeling the benefits but they are not measurable for licence. In some cases and even in large numbers in trials, the Placebo or fake treatment can improve the person’s condition.

The phenomenon is known as The Placebo Effect.

In her book Cure: A Journey into the Science of Mind over Body, Jo Marchant explores the neuroscientific reasons for the positive responses by patients to non-active drugs and even fake surgical procedures. This has happened when surgeons have suspected that the post-op improvements were not related to the actual procedure. Just as with the drugs trials, if patients did not have the actual operation but believe they did, this proves that the operation is not effective, and it is pointless to continue to offer the procedure to patients.

How does this Placebo Effect work? How do patients believe that they are improving from drugs or an operation when they are taking sugar pills or didn’t actually have the operation?

The Human Interaction Effect: In one trial, patients recovering from surgery were given pain killers via an intravenous drip. One half were told what was happening by the doctor, and the others were not told. Those who experienced the human interaction had 50% more effective pain relief from the same dosage. When the patients experienced the human interaction from medical professionals, going through the surgical preparation, and were in the hospital environment, endorphins were released from the brain’s neurotransmitters to give the pain relief, the positive mood, and calmness.

The Willingness To Believe Effect: A major trial in the late 1990s led many parents to believe that serotonin was an effective treatment for children with Autism. The results appeared to show the endorphin was very effective as parents reported significant improvements in their children’s behaviour. However, the results of the trial showed the 50 % of children who received the placebo tablets had very similar results to those who received the serotonin, proving the serotonin had no medical effect. The experiment was highly controversial as parents had been told in the media that this was “the wonder drug”. The parents willed themselves to believe they saw the changes in their children’s behaviour as they were told it would happen. It was unrelated to the actual drug.

The Daily Ritual Effect: Even when parents found out their children had received the placebo tablets in the Serotonin trial, some wanted to continue to have it “prescribed” because they believed it was effective, and indeed, their children’s behaviour did improve in some cases. This is the Daily Ritual Effect or the Daily Habit. By following a daily ritual of a behaviour which you know will have a positive mental and physical effect on your well being, it does prove to have a measurable effect.


By following the Daily Habit for a positive effect, the brain releases endorphins such as dopamine, oxytocin, and serotonin, so that the individual feels calmer, happier and more positive. It is the same when the person has their ritual in getting ready and going running, going to the gym, preparing a healthy daily breakfast, or practising meditation or yoga each day.

The endorphins were released by neurotransmitters in the brains of the children on the serotonin trial as they followed the daily ritual of their tablets – active or non-active. They responded to the ritual.

The Placebo Effect is now being scientifically proven to be a process of the brain’s neurotransmitters releasing endorphins. Our director, Heather Wright has talked about the positive impact of the release of endorphins to make us feel good when we pursue daily positive habits. Neuroscience is now able to prove how effective these endorphins can be – even making patients believe they have taken powerful drugs or had life-changing surgery.

The power of the brain continues to amaze us, as our scientists continue on this journey of discovery.