By Guy Mastrion
An article in a recent issue of WIRED cited statistics that the placebo effect is twice as strong as it used to be.
Is it really, I wondered? I guessed not. I guessed that there was a good reason for it. And I came up with a couple of possibilities.
First possibility. What if we just measure it better and better? Everybody’s heard of it, in these sophisticated times. Researchers must be incredibly attuned to it.
I’ll buy that. That might be why.
Second possibility. What if the increase is because drug development is focusing on conditions that are not directly killers – what some people call “lifestyle” drugs – and less on the immediately life-or-death conditions? It might be more profitable to treat depression than brain cancer. And I’m not a doctor, but I’d bet it’s a lot easier to see a placebo effect with the former than the latter. So perhaps the issue is that the treatments being developed lend themselves better to the placebo effect.
This seems even more likely to me.
I believe that, to a certain degree, the more we use our brains, the stronger they get. And I further believe that what we tell ourselves has an enormous effect on us. I’m not one of those “think yourself well” people, don’t get me wrong. But I do believe that the interplay between thoughts and actions and biological responses is much more complex than our cheery bromides might make us think. I do think that if we act and think and believe something strongly, it can work biologically within us. And hell, even if you disagree with me – doing that, in conjunction with treatment, sure can’t hurt.
So I wonder – how much is the state of our health influenced by the observer effect and self-diagnosis? Decades ago nobody talked about attention deficit or erectile dysfunction or bipolar disorder. But now, like I said, we’re sophisticated. I’m sure you know someone who’s never been diagnosed by a professional, but walks around announcing to the world that they have ADD. I’m not saying they do or don’t. My point is that they’ve decided that they have. That can be great and can result in their taking positive decisions that improve their lives and their health. But it could also do the opposite.
As people who help to provide online health information, how much is that our worry and our responsibility? We’re just putting more information out there. Is that always healthy? Does it sometimes just give people more to freak out over? Can we do anything in our work to minimize that?