Finland’s Arctic circle might not seem like a great place to run a marathon barefoot and in shorts—unless you’re Wim Hof. Hof, better known as “The Iceman,” has attained roughly two dozen world records by completing marvellous feats of physical endurance in conditions that would kill others. Yet even he was understandably nervous the night before his 26-mile jaunt at -4 degrees Fahrenheit.
“What did I get myself into?” he recalls thinking. But from the moment his bare toes hit the snow, he began to feel “surprisingly good.”
MRI scans reveal that Wim Hof artificially induces a stress response in his brain. “By accident or by luck he found a hack into the physiological system,” they say.
We know that communication matters – in regard to any human exchange and any human relationship. We can also consider the words we use, and the way we use them, in relation to their value as ‘placebo’. The effectiveness (or ineffectiveness) of communication can generate a placebo (or nocebo) effect, evidenced very clearly in the way that health practitioners interact with their clients, as illustrated in this article in the Irish Times, “Doctors Say One Thing. Patients Often Hear Something Else”.
“How patients frame questions and how doctors frame advice is an important element in successful health communication. Behavioural economists describe a phenomenon known as loss aversion: as humans, we are primed to feel losses nearly twice as heavily as we appreciate gains.
So for actions that we perceive as risky, a health message that presents the lack of action as an even greater risk is more effective. However, for actions that we don’t see as especially risky, presenting the action itself as beneficial has been shown to produce a better behavioural response.”
Damien Finniss was working as a physiotherapist when, on a still winter’s afternoon in 2001, he set up his treatment table in a shed at the perimeter of a Sydney footy ground.
As players came off with sundry aches – a pulled hammy here, a calf strain there – Finniss ministered to them with therapeutic ultrasound, a device that applies sound waves to the injured area with a handheld probe.
“I treated in excess of five or six athletes during the training session. I’d treat them for five or 10 minutes and they’d say ‘I feel much better’ and run back on to the training field,” recalls Finniss, now a medical doctor and Associate Professor at the University of Sydney’s Pain Management and Research Institute.
“But, at the end of the session, I realised that I’d, basically, had the machine turned off.”
Meanwhile, in Germany, researchers reveal some convincing evidence of the impact of the placebo effect, discovering that “a person’s expectations have a major influence on just how strenuous they perceive exercise to be.”
‘Cognitive enhancers’? Oh, do us a favour. Highly hyped and highly price energy drinks like Red Bull are all about the sugar and the caffeine, that’s all. Lots of sugar and caffeine. So why pay the premium, the enormous mark-up? It’s marketing, probably one of the shiniest examples of the placebo effect in marketing. Some science on this over here.
According to The Science of Us (and leaving aside the well known issues related to our excessive consumption of the stuff) the concept of ‘the sugar high’ is something of a parenting urban legend; plenty of research has shown that feeding kids sugar doesn’t make them hyper. What it does do, though, is prime their parents to look for signs of misbehavior.
In part, pediatric researcher Mark Wolraich told Geggel, the misconception stems from the fact that sugar often marks a special occasion: When kids are stuffing themselves with birthday cake or Halloween candy, they’re already in a situation where they’re going to be naturally amped up. But “[parents’] ideas are reinforced by seeing it in those circumstances,” Wolraich said. “The placebo effect can be very powerful.”
“The placebo effect should be the subject of major, funded research efforts. If medical researchers could figure out how to leverage the placebo effect, they would hand doctors an efficient, energy-based, side effect-free tool to treat disease. Energy healers say they already have such tools, but I am a scientist, and I believe the more we know about science of the placebo, the better we’ll be able to use it in clinical settings.”
There’s so much attention right now given to Olympic atheletes’ use of ‘placebo’ rituals and objects, from favourite items of underwear to ancient Chinese ‘cupping’ techniques and herbal supplements.
“Judo gold medalist Kayla Harrison wears the lucky socks that were a gift from her grandmother. Hockey player Alex Danson spins her stick 15 times before each game. Tennis player Rafael Nadal takes alternating sips from two water bottles at every break between games.”
“In sports, it’s a little different in that in the vast majority of cases relying on the placebo effect probably won’t hurt, and in many cases might actually help because of the power of belief. Aside from some potential BO, is it really a problem that an athlete regularly wears the same t-shirt under his uniform to help with on-field success? In fact, savvy coaches regularly use various placebo approaches when trying to help their team with belief — and often these tactics work.”
I’m afraid, so, folks. It seems the valiant, fleshy oyster’s reputation as an aphrodisiac may be be down to … you guessed it … the placebo effect.
My co-worker Zara literally told me every time she has an oyster, she feels a tingling sensation in her nipples. My mind was blown. What in the world?! Am I asexual? Why doesn’t that happen to me??!
I decide to consult with Dr. Nicole Prause, principal investigator at the Sexual Psychophysiology and Affective Neuroscience Lab at the University of California, to find out what’s actually going on in our brains every time we eat oysters.
So you want to run faster — but you’re not ready for steroids?
No problem: just swallow a pill made of sugar and water that you think is a steroid — and you’ll run faster, because you believe you can.
A recent Scottish study found runners told they were getting performance-enhancing pills felt stronger and ran faster than normally — even though the pills were fake.
It’s just the latest example of the Placebo Effect, one of the most powerful effects known to humans, along with the Greenhouse Effect, the Brexit Effect and the Trump Defect.
Placebos are fake drugs you think are real — and a third of the time, they’re more effective than most drugs in the pharmacy at reducing everything from headaches, pain, nausea, coughs and colds to anxiety caused by fear that the pills your doctor gave you are actually placebos.