The placebo effect has to be one of the all-time most baffling scientific phenomena we've run across. This process, by which you can fool the body into healing with nothing more than fake pills and bullshit, is more than just the power of positive thinking. The more they study it, the more scientists realize that either the brain has way more influence over our health than we realize or a huge number of the ailments we complain about are in fact just all in our heads.
Or maybe it's both? Either way ...
7 You're Only as Tired as You Think You Are
You don't need some Gallup poll to tell you that people feel like they don't get enough sleep -- if you work with other human beings, you almost certainly have a co-worker who won't shut up about how they feel like shit because their neighbor's dog was barking all fucking night. And we all have days when we are that annoying co-worker.
We call those days "weekdays."
But there might be an easy way to solve your sleep problems: stop whining about it.
Researchers at Colorado College hooked subjects up to a machine that measured their brainwaves while they slept. It kept track of how much REM sleep they were getting and, as the subjects were told, the amount of time you spend in REM has a huge effect on how rested you feel the next morning. Except the researchers were lying; nobody was measuring REM sleep (note: a significant proportion of human experimentation consists of just lying right to people's faces).
Then, they randomly split the subjects into groups. One group was told they had spent plenty of time in REM sleep. The second group was told they had a poor night's sleep, not spending much time in REM.
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These three were told they spent exactly the right amount of time in REM.
Now, you probably think we're going to say that, due to the placebo effect, the people who were told they slept fitfully started yawning and asking for a blanket. That would at least make some kind of sense -- it's not much different than your friend who starts acting drunk after one sip of a Bud Light. But what actually happened was they gave both groups cognitive tests and found that, somehow, the first group performed significantly better. Just because they were told they had gotten quality sleep, their brains actually started working better.
So (from this study, at least) it would appear that you're actually making it worse if you complain that you're tired and keep reminding yourself that you didn't get enough sleep. It would also appear that even if an over-the-counter sleep aid contains nothing but wax and sawdust, you'll feel better the next day as long as you think it worked.
"Wow," you might be thinking, "the human mind sure has a crazy ability to influence how we feel!" Actually, who said anything about the "human" mind? After all ...
6 The Placebo Effect Even Works on Animals
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Animals have a notoriously shoddy understanding of medicine.
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"My diagnosis: duck cancer. My prescription: 10 cc's of small rocks. You'll be cured before lunch."
The whole point of the placebo effect seems to be the subject's expectation -- assuming it's going to work is what makes it work. With your dog, you have to trick him into taking medicine by hiding it in cheese, so his expectation is just that he's getting some awesome cheese. How could a sugar pill he doesn't even know about do anything for him?
The answer is conditioning. It turns out that the expectation doesn't need to be conscious. A study done on dogs showing signs of separation anxiety started by giving the animals regular doses of a real, effective medication. When the researchers swapped out the medication with a placebo, it kept right on working ... even though they're dogs, and they literally don't know what pills are, or what they're for, or even that they had a condition that needed treatment in the first place. Evidently their little brains still made a sort of Pavlovian connection between the treatment and the result (less anxiety). Somehow.
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Meanwhile, they conditioned the scientists into constantly asking, "Who's a good boy?"
Despite them clearly knowing the fucking answer to that.
Going a different way, scientists wanted to see what would happen to some hamsters if the lighting was adjusted to trick them into thinking it was winter. In the wild, winter means there will be less available food, so animals need to be a lot more careful about how they use up their precious calories. The hamsters that were tricked into expecting winter conditions actually had their energy-burning immune systems power down in response.
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"Winter at last! Sleep well, my friends!"
Brains seem to do a sort of cost-benefit analysis when it comes to healing, and they're less likely to commit resources to getting better if they think they won't have the energy to spare. Sometimes it's better to just stay sick than to starve yourself fighting it. The scientists who did the experiment believe this points to a possible evolutionary origin to some of our own placebo responses. If you think you're taking real medicine, your body expects the healing process to cost less, so it might commit more readily to healing. Then again, this assumes the non-thinking part of your body can "expect" something, and when you start thinking through the implications of that, things get weird again. After all, doesn't that imply there are abilities your body is simply hiding from you? Especially considering ...