Nick Page and Christy Van Arragon look at the placebo effect. How does the mind affect the body? How can a placebo help or hurt our health?

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Welcome to Spotlight. I’m Nick Page.

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And I’m Christy VanArragon. Spotlight uses a special English method of broadcasting. It is easier for people to understand, no matter where in the world they live.

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Imagine that you are sick. You go to see a doctor. Your doctor gives you some drugs. He tells you that they will make you better. You take the drugs and you do start to feel better. But later, the doctor tells you that it is not the drugs that have helped you. The drugs were just a sugar substance. The doctor explains that your improved health was from the placebo effect. Today’s Spotlight is on the placebo effect.

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“Placebo” is a Latin word, used in English. It means, “I shall please.” The placebo effect is when a suggestion or belief that something is helpful actually makes it become helpful. For example, just the act of taking a medicine can improve a person’s health! The mind works to heal the body.

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Scientists sometimes use placebos to test the effect of drugs, or medicines. They perform controlled experiments. They give one group of people the real medicine. They give another group of people a ‘placebo’ medicine. The placebo looks exactly like the medicine but it is not. It does not contain any healing elements. The people do not know which medicine they are taking – the real one or the placebo. The medicine has to produce better results than the placebo to prove that it is effective.

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However, sometimes the people taking the placebo experience improvements in their health. The false drug produces an effect – even though it is not supposed to! Scientists call this the ‘placebo effect.’

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Researchers have studied the placebo effect for many years. There is great interest about the subject. And there are still many unanswered questions. Why is a placebo effective? Mostly, researchers have looked at the placebo effect in terms of physical health. However, a research team in Sweden has produced some interesting findings about the emotional effects of placebos.

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The team performed a series of experiments. First the researchers showed a group of people unpleasant pictures, like images of dead bodies. The people rated how they felt after seeing the pictures. They gave the highest number to the pictures that gave them the worst feelings. The researchers then gave the people a calming drug. They told the people that the calming drug would reduce the unpleasant feelings from the pictures. When the team showed the pictures again, the people said that they felt much calmer.

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The following day, the researchers gave the people unpleasant images to look at again. Then, they gave them drugs. However, this time they gave them a placebo instead of the calming drug. The placebo was nothing but salt and water. But the people did not know this.

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After taking the placebo, the people’s ratings still changed. Their unpleasant feelings reduced by almost 30%. It seems that taking the placebo made them feel calmer. During the experiment scientists also used special equipment to look at, or ‘scan’ the brain. They wanted to see if there was a change in the way the brains’ emotional centres were behaving. The scans showed that the brains’ emotional centres were more rested after the people took the placebo. The scientists claim that this is important new evidence. It means that placebos may reduce emotional pain. Dr Predrag Petrovic managed the experiment. He told the BBC:

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‘The placebo changes what we expect. When we expect that something unpleasant should become less unpleasant, it really does.’

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So does that mean that doctors could use placebos to treat worry or anxiety? Dr. Petrovic said that this is not likely to happen. It would mean that doctors would have to lie to their patients. Dylan Evans teaches at a specialist university in England. He has written books about the placebo effect. He said:

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‘Doctors have a duty to care for their patients. But they also have a duty to tell the truth. Placebos seem to pull these two duties in opposite directions.’

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The placebo effect may be real, but it cannot replace medicine. If a doctor lies to his patient it may have a bad effect on their relationship. And many researchers believe that a good relationship alone can help the healing process. Studies show that support and reassurance can improve health. A good patient-doctor relationship is healing. But this is nothing new. Hippocrates was a great physician, or doctor. He lived in ancient Greece. More than 2,000 years ago, he wrote:

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’..the patient, though knowing that his condition is terrible, may recover his health simply through being satisfied with the goodness of the doctor.’

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The mind can affect the body in good ways. But it can also produce bad effects. Some people describe the nocebo effect as ‘placebo’s evil brother.’ Placebo means, ‘I will please.’ Nocebo means, ‘I will harm.’ A nocebo effect is when a suggestion or belief that something is harmful actually makes it become harmful. For example, some people feel nervous before a test. The nervous feeling gives them pains in their stomach – it can even produce physical sickness.

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Scientists and doctors are studying the relationship between the mind and the body very closely. It is important work. If doctors can understand how one influences the other, they may be able to help patients more effectively. Increasingly, people are looking at ways of treating the ‘whole person’- not just the body.

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Could it be that modern doctors have centred too much on treating the physical body? Developments in modern medicine are happening very quickly. For some people a trip to the doctor has become a quick fix. They have a pain in the head – so they take medicine. They treat the symptom – the physical pain. But are they in danger of never treating the causes?

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Photo by Karolina Grabowska from Pexels
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Bernard Palmer is a doctor and a Christian. He believes that people have physical, mental and spiritual needs. And he says that effective treatment recognises the needs of the ‘whole person.’ Many people have physical problems that are made worse by their mental state. And some people have deep spiritual needs – which only God can meet. Dr. Palmer says that God is concerned with our bodies, minds and spirits – and that we should be too. So maybe the placebo effect is not so surprising after all. It is simply meeting a need that is not physical. It seems that the human body is far more complex than we understand.

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The writers of this program were Marina Santee and Elizabeth Lickiss. The producer was Nick Mangeolles. The voices you heard were from the United Kingdom and the United States. You can find our programs on the internet at www.radioenglish.net. This program is called ‘The Placebo Effect’.

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We hope you can join us again for the next Spotlight program. Goodbye.

Question

Have you ever experienced a time when your mind affected your body?

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