Animated video about the placebo effect

[Video Link] The Professor Funk made a fun video about the placebo effect. Now excuse me while I shoot up my morning dose of saline.

Laughing Squid: The Strange Powers of the Placebo Effect


  1. Someone should note that Placebo’s don’t work at all for many things. There’s no placebo cure for rabies for good reason. Placebo effects are normally small and reversable. I.e. a placebo may help you feel less pain but it probably won’t make a rash go away. This isn’t a case of “Your mind can heal anything if you really believe” which is what some people take away from the placebo effect.

    1. Sam, you are correct that your mind can not heal anything just because you believe it, but your body can heal many things if prompted by your mind.  Keep in mind that the majority of western modern medicine is also more theory than fact- witness the placebo effect in action following surgery for Angina for a nice “medical” placebo. 

    1. The problem with homeopathic remedies is when people take distilled water instead of,  say, appropriate antibiotics to treat, say, methicillin-resistant staphylococcus infections.

      And that’s a public-health issue because it puts other people at risk, not just the believers.

      1. That’s kind of a weak example, as folks with MRSA are rarely given appropriate antibiotics on the first shot.   They’re often first given an antibiotic that the infection is immune to.  It just clears out the non-infectious commensal bacteria, allowing the MRSA even more opportunity to colonize the skin and tissues.

        The etiology of the condition is also suspected to have been made more likely from the overuse of antibiotics.  So if people had been taking the placebo of useless homeopathy for their colds instead of the placebo of useless antibiotics for their viruses, MRSA might be a much less common condition.  

    2. Because people are selling them distilled water as a cure for cancer, and then they’re dying of cancer.

    3. No, homeopathy still sucks, and here’s why.

      Placebos work because we know that science works. We know that there are effective cures for many diseases, and effective treatments and palliatives for many more. We don’t even have to know that this specific ailment has a cure or treatment for the part of our brain that engages with the treatment to get activated.

      But if we throw science out the window, and let bullshit cures stand on their own, we introduce doubt into the process, and that makes the placebo effect less effective. If we eventually let it get to the point where we have a scienceless dark age, placebos probably won’t work at all.

      Homeopathy seeks to be seen as scientific/rational, and it isn’t, and we know exactly why it’s nonsense. We have to tear it down, so that we can retain our confidence in real scientific cures.

      1. “Placebos work because we know that science works.”

        No, that’s not how it works. Placebos work because our belief in the treatment makes it work. If you believe in magic, then some fake magic ritual might be a very effective placebo. In you believe in homeopathy, then some distilled water might be a very effective placebo. For someone who (correctly, in this case) believes scence works, some scientific looking sugar might be a very effective placebo.

        So homeopathy can actually help people who believe in it. The big question is how ethical it is to deceive someone in order to help him. Of of course the really big constraint has to be that placebos of any kind will never be used instead of real, proven treatment. The person prescribing the placebo has to be qualified to make that diagnosis.

        Of course homeopaths who claim that their water will cure cancer need to be locked up. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be used for good as well.

        1. You’re missing the point. I know homeopathy can work–as a placebo–for people who believe in it. But I have no interest in helping someone temporarily feel better through bullshit pseudoscience if it means undermining the scientific progress the rest of us rely on. And it does.

    4. “If people believe distilled water will make them better, why take that away from them?”

      Are you saying delusions can’t be harmful? I think the answer is pretty obvious.

  2. I’d second what Sam Sugar says about emphasizing the limits of placebos.

    I’d also note that the variability of the placebo effect, depending on how big/shiny/numerous the pills are, should tell us something about ‘alternative’ modalities like crystal healing and homeopathy.  

    They may be nothing but placebos, but they have really detailed, complex backstories with all sorts of hooks for people to hang their beliefs on.

    Is that more effective than a sugar pill?  Probably depends on which one you believe in.

  3. The only thing left to do is figure out what part of the brain handles “I feel different” when taking a placebo, and develop a drug that convinces that part of the brain that you feel fucking awesome.

    And then use a placebo in place of that, and see if we get a feedback loop. Every step you take will be an orgasm!

    1. …develop a drug that convinces that part of the brain that you feel fucking awesome.

      I think that’s called “medical marijuana.” :-)

    2. ” and develop a drug that convinces that part of the brain that you feel fucking awesome.”

      I think that’s called heroin???

    3. … then you find no enjoyment in a real orgasm. Next thing you know, Bam! You’re a servant of Slaanesh…

    1. I read about that. The mind is pretty awesome. Well – mine seems to hate me, but what ever.

      But thanks to this effect, it has made the makers Airborne very rich.

  4. Props to him for mentioning the existance of surgical placeboes, even if most here are in a tizzy over homeopathy.
    Medicine has lept into action as a result of this study, and now do the same procedure still pretty frequently, but use different  codes so it doesn’t show up on paper as them doing arthroscopic surgery for arthritic knees. 

  5. When I was watching the button-press placebo I couldn’t get the idea out of my head that voting here in the US is pretty much the same thing… A placebo effect to keep we rabble satisfied…

    1. That would imply a level of competence capable of formulating such a hoax that our leaders simply do not have.

  6. My mother was given a placebo for years to placate her. Then she ended up in the hospital. Turns out her pain was from an enlarged and dying kidney. We thought she was just one of *those* women who only *think* they’re in pain because they’re women! Oops! 

    That is why homeopathy can go hang.

  7. This video only focuses on one aspect of the placebo effect, mainly the actual drug taken, but ignores other reasons for the placebo effect, which is just why anyone in the non-treatment group reports feeling better at all.

    From :

    “The reanalysis of
    Beecher’s data claims that the improvements were due to:Spontaneous
    improvement, fluctuation of symptoms,
    regression to the
    mean, additional treatment, conditional switching of placebo treatment,
    scaling bias, irrelevant response variables, answers of politeness,
    experimental subordination, conditioned answers, neurotic or psychotic
    misjudgment, psychosomatic phenomena, misquotation, etc.”

    Just having a patient answer questions to a person instead of by paper response (same exact questions) will cause people to report feeling better.

    So it’s great how much information this presents about how different people and cultures view how they should feel depending on the physical characteristics of the physical pill they are taking, but please don’t think of placebos as “mind over matter, I can cure myself by belief”, there really is more going on with how we think we feel, what we are willing to tell other people about how we feel, and a little bit of random chance.

  8. Bryce’s comment above is important.  There is a real neuropsychological placebo effect that works on pain (also anxiety).  Naloxone, the opiate blocker, blocks this effect, so it’s not precisely what you’d usually mean by “imaginary”.  However, as to typical nonsubjective symptoms, the placebo effect derives from things like desire to please the researcher that don’t actually do the patient any good.

    A test of placebo inhalers for asthma showed that the patients felt better, but that their lung function was not improved.  (Abstract here:  If one didn’t have real asthma medications, this effect might seem useful. Given that we do, not so much.

  9. I must say it is wrong to say that it does not have terapheutic value. I does, but you cannot control. And farmaceutic industry neither… Medicine and Science is full of placebo effect. Electronics are based on an assumtion that we cannot explain through science (i=square root of -1). We have to asume them to behave like that, and they seem to work, but we cant explain it

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