It's obvious why some placebos work. A guy says he's feeling nauseous, you give him a sugar pill and tell him it'll cure it. He stops worrying about his stomach, thus the stomach calms down. The "herbal Viagra" industry and products like ExtenZe can enhance sexual performance by making the man think he has taken something that will enhance his sexual performance. It's easy to imagine how it works.
But the placebo effect goes way, way beyond that.
Completely imaginary drugs have been found to help everything from warts, to heart disease, to asthma. Doctors have even gone so far as to conduct sham knee surgeries that were almost as effective as the real thing.
"Fake knee surgeries, what a terrific use of my medical degree."
What the hell?
Science's Wild-Ass Guess:
First, there's debate over whether the placebo effect is even real at all, with some believing that most recoveries attributed to the effect can be explained by the body's natural healing abilities (as in, the patients would have gotten better even if they hadn't seen a doctor at all).
On one level, that's actually pretty disturbing. Keep in mind, some studies show placebos work as well as actual medical techniques in up to 50 to 60 percent of cases. Yes, it's possible 50 to 60 percent of what the trillion dollar medical industry does could be achieved by staying home, resting and watching daytime TV. Try not to think about that one too much or you may end up on YouTube screaming something at a town hall meeting.
Others have even hypothesized the placebo effect may just be us unconsciously ignoring or repressing symptoms so we please our doctors. Meaning, the patient was still in pain, but was fed up with sitting in the waiting room for an hour every week so finally said, "fuck it." Tell the doc you're all better and get him to sign a note for you to return to work.
"I did it? Hell yeah. I rule at doctoring."
None of those explain everything, including the extremely weird fact that the phenomenon has become more and more powerful in recent years.
Again we ask, what the hell?
Even though human beings are obsessed with dissecting and interpreting dreams ("I was giving Gary Busey a backrub while riding a flying armadillo." "Ah, this means you are feeling anxiety about your career.") we really know very little about what causes them or what purpose they serve.
Science's Wild-Ass Guess:
The old Freudian theory was that dreams were expressions of our unconscious desires, but none of the cool psychologists still follow Freud these days. Besides, if Freud was right far too many people have a sick fetish for being forced to take pop quizzes in their underwear.
ALL MY DREAMS ARE COMING TRUE!
Others have suggested dreaming is a way for our brain to formulate new ideas through the use of "random thought mutations" (one of you New Age musicians out there, you can have that album title for free).
Another theory states that dreaming is our brain tidying itself up and disposing of useless "junk thoughts." In order to buy this idea, though, you have to accept that the average guy's dreams about tits and being Batman are junk, and we're sure you agree that's simply unacceptable.
Dreams are windows to the soul, people.
Of course both of these seem awfully high-minded when you consider that animals also dream. Does your dog really have excess thoughts he has to get out of his overloaded doggy brain?
Perhaps weirdest of all is the mounting evidence that much of what influences our dreams comes from outside, not inside, our heads. Noises and scents may have an effect on the content of our dreams, and we bet your wacky tealeaf reading, dream-interpreting aunt didn't take into account the Earth's geomagnetic activity during her analysis.