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Pill Pill (Lucas Lucas/flickr/CC-BY-2.0)

With new research demonstrating the startling power of the placebo effect, this hour of Radiolab examines the chemical consequences of belief and imagination.

Could the best medicine be no medicine at all? We take stock of the pharmacy in our brains, consider the symbolic power of the doctor coat, and visit the tent of a self-proclaimed faith healer.


Dr. Naji Abumrad, Fabrizio Benedetti, preacher Steve Buza, Dr. Daniel Carr, Ed Cohen, Ann Harrington, Dr. Albert Mason, Daniel Moerman and Tor Wager

Pinpointing the Placebo Effect

All over the world, people say they are healed by things that turn out to be placebo. So it's easy to think that they must have been faking in the first place if all it took was a little sugar pill to assuage their ailments. But keep your scoffing at ...

Comments [31]

The White Coat

Next up: a look at the placebo effect from the doctor's perspective. How the medical context alone can be the key into the brain's healing resources. We'll hear the story of Dr. Albert Mason, who found he had super-powers, used them for good, and then lost them forever. Then, we'll ...

Comments [14]

Faith Healers

The very first placebo-controlled trial may have been the debunking of the charismatic Anton Mesmer (the enigmatic source responsible for the verb “to mesmerize”), an enlightenment figure with a healing technique that Ben Franklin, for one, thought was basically placebo performance. Historians Ed Cohen ...

Comments [22]

Comments [64]


I love the sounds in the background! Top notch! ;D

Mar. 09 2017 09:01 PM
Luke Beauchamp from Adelaide

What was the name of that armonica piece towards the end?

Feb. 26 2017 04:45 PM
Steve W from Sacramento

This epIsolde really struck a chord with me. When I was 10, I had a wart on my middle finger for half of the school year. Tried everything the drug store had to offer. I was reading Tom Sawyer one day and got to the part where Tom recalls a spell for wart removal. In my desperation, I followed every step of this formula behind my home, without telling my folks what I was up to. Less than a week later the wart was gone. I credit this experience for launching me down a road of spiritual discovery, which I am just now getting reacquainted with at the age of 39. This episode reminded me of the power of ritual in my life, so thanks to all of you at Radiolab. I loved this one.

Aug. 03 2016 04:50 AM
N.K. from Japan

This episode made me remember a funny and illuminating story a friend of mine from Singapore told me about from the news there:

An old woman was suffering some kind of physical ailment. At this point I don't remember what it was, but suffice it to say that involved some swelling and aches and pains. Maybe some kind of a joint problem. Maybe steroids. So she went to see a Chinese herbal healer (the woman was ethnically Chinese, as are the majority of Singaporeans). The healer gave her some herbal pills; she took them, and almost immediately her problem started to abate.

The woman, alarmed by how well they worked, went to the police. The police took the pills in for analysis by one of their police chemists, and found illegal steroids in them. The herbal healer was arrested.

The was the news story. What my friend (also an ethnic achinese Singaporean, albeit from a much younger generation) exasperatedly couldn't get over was the irony that the news story didn't dwell on at all: The woman, who clearly believed in traditional herbal healing enough for it to be her first choice in treatment, was shocked enough to contact the police when it actually worked -- AND her concerns were justified when it turned out not to be herbal healing after all. Funny stuff.

Jul. 31 2016 08:18 AM

Heard this episode today on KUHF, and the faith healing segment set me off. Specifically the interviewer claiming that the Carpal Tunnel sufferer got better at all. She and the interviewer fell for a cheap trick instead. If you listen close, the healer first does the thumb and pinkie test using his own pinkie to break the ring to show how weak she is. For the second test, he uses his "big" finger, to prove how much stronger she's gotten. This is exactly backwards and a cheap trick.

It's MUCH easier to pull a tiny pinkie finger through that ring thank a big thick index finger. Try it! I tested my wife and fairly easily slipped my pinkie through, but couldn't get my index finger through, especially is I used the meatiest part of my finger.

That faith "healer" made the test hard before he "healed" her, and made the test easy after. It's no wonder she seemed better. These kinds of tricks based on body mechanics are used to sell all manner of placebo-effect devices like balance bands, magnetic bracelets, etc.

Jul. 30 2016 11:03 PM
Poppy from Boise, ID

Loved hearing this story but I am wondering if you thought about homeopathic remedies. Exactly what they do is get the body to use (and create more of) what it already has inside to work on the issue. Homeopathy is powerful, has been around for centuries, and I believe with more scientific research would make it more acceptable in western medicine and would decrease the use of so many pharmaceuticals.

Jul. 30 2016 03:19 PM
Jane from USA

I'm surprised a graduation for doctors included some silly prayer. Aren't they supposed to deal in science?

Feb. 26 2016 11:16 AM

The part where Jad was joking about how he'd rig up a happy button in his brain to get homemade drugs all day long was very crass. He sounded like a dumb frat boy.

May. 21 2015 11:00 AM

The greatest ignorance is to deny something you know nothing about.

Apr. 26 2015 03:31 PM
Lynette Wood from Largo, FL

I am surprised at the degree of negativity in the comments. I found this show fascinating. To say something is impossible, silly, or extreme quackery etc without back up facts is just an "opinion". Keeping an open mind is important to our growth as a civilization. When I was a child I remember an elderly neighbor who said we will never get to the moon because God didn't want us to. So rather than go radical negative, let's be polite and keep an open mind. We don't need to swallow everything said or heard but by stating extreme negative opinions we sound as if we are living in the dark ages. Respectfully, L. Wood (former ethics prof)

Apr. 26 2015 02:17 PM
Stefanie from Silver Spring MD

These broadcasts are, generally, so reliable and intelligent. BUT, please do not misuse the word "theory" when you mean "hypothesis". A theory is a broadly stated principle of science supported by a large body of facts and research. It is not an idea, or a notion. That is a hypothesis.
Misuse of this word gives ammunition to the ignorant who say that evolution is JUST a theory and thus, any crackpot idea should be given equal weight in classrooms. Please don't do that.

Apr. 26 2015 01:35 PM

despite the utter silliness of this episode, i actually have a serious question (which i have no doubt will be ignored). nevertheless, i wonder if people who are disenfranchised -- who learned not to trust others -- are as susceptible to the placebo effect? based on personal experience, i suspect they are not.

Apr. 25 2015 12:14 PM

Placebo - This is a Favorite!
Absolutely Fascinating!

Apr. 28 2014 11:32 AM

This rebroadcast is on a very interesting and important subject, but once again Radiolab manages to undermine much of the significance with too many offbeat tangents and goofy techno effects along the way. The big point about the placebo effect is the critical and complex mind-body relationship which in recent years has become more highly regarded and investigated by respectable scientists. There is clearly a kind of "self-healing" that is hardly understood by current scientists but can be cultivated by various mechanisms from the serious to the wacky. I'm glad the program at least delves into the importance of a doctor's manner in creating the emotional conditions for a patient to manage their own self-healing from many conditions of dis-ease. But why not at least cover the clinical trials approach in which a placebo is used and often yields a significant response, sometimes even better than the drug being reviewed in the same trial? What are medical and scientific trials of many kinds finding about placebo effects within randomized clinical studies and so on?

Apr. 27 2014 06:34 PM

I'm commenting about the story about people feeling more pain from getting shot or hurt seriously , in life at home, versus the soldiers on the battlefield. The conclusion was made that it's the end story that drove the level of pain. That would suggest that every soldier is thinking the same thing, which is rather ridiculous.
Seems more plausible that a soldier is in a heightened emotional state, while in service on the battlefield especially. This makes a soldier produce chemicals in their body that I would think have quite a bit to do with feeling pain when they do get injured. Versus someone at home , your body is in a much different state of awareness and relaxation.
They need to readdress that theory. End story of glory keeps the pain factor way down? , c'mon. !!

Apr. 27 2014 05:57 PM
Namiko Hart from Oak Bluffs, MA

As a practitioner and student of Traditional Chinese Medicine I have also participated in a discipline called Tongren Healing. This is healing done by tapping with a magnetic hammer on an acupuncture doll. Tongren has been around since about 1993. The effectiveness of this technique to heal just about anything is significant. In fact it has been so effective for cancer patients that the Dana Farber Institute in Boston refers people to Tom Tam, the acupuncturist who leads these sessions. All sessions are free. I would love to see Radiolab do a show about Tongren. Tongren is practiced internationally by thousands of people including doctors, nurses and other health care practitioners.

Apr. 27 2014 03:56 PM
bevba from Austin, Tx

RE: the doctor who lost his confidence after a respected elder physician told him his claim of curing the boy of his skin disease was impossible... The doctor decided he could not repeat the cure because HE had doubts after hearing a superior say it was impossible. Probably contributed, but what about what the PATIENT believed possible? The boy whose arm was cured believed he had an extreme case of warts. Nothing had helped, but it's likely no one had told him he had an incurable disease. The others the doctor worked on probably had been told that. Many times.

Apr. 27 2014 02:00 PM
Scott E. Robinson from Tacoma

are you kidding me one of the most intriguing and interesting radio broadcasts I've ever listened to thank you.

Apr. 26 2014 08:27 PM
Michelle Slater from New York City, USA

TRUST is central to any healing relationship, even with accredited medical professionals, and should never be discounted entirely. The most effective 'cures' depend on both parties cooperating in the work. In my experience with licensed standard Medical Physicians and surgeons, with Homeopaths, Naturopaths, and with yogic practitioners, and faith based practices from the Vedic and Buddhist traditions I have had many improvements, and several 'cures' over seven decades.

Apr. 26 2014 07:57 PM
Rob Sweeney from Yonkerss

With the Italian women, I was wondering whether the Ave Maria blue pills worked better for the nonas or the jung fraus.

Apr. 26 2014 02:27 PM
nancy perkins from NYC

This show is always interesting and informative. The only problem I have with it is the fake "gee whiz", feigned ignorance on the part of Jad or Robert, as though the two of them hadn't prepared the script together. Very fake and completely unnecessary to the show. It would be a pleasanter listening experience if that component could be eliminated.

Apr. 26 2014 12:22 PM
Lindsay L from Oceanside, CA

Is there a transcript available for this episode?

Nov. 15 2013 08:56 PM
Laura from Indianapolis, IN

I would be interested in someone covering the placebo effect as it relates to the sponge and water that seems to be a panacea for all ailments in international soccer games.

I have always been amazed at the power of the sponge to immediately regurgitate a soccer player writhing about on the pitch.

Sep. 03 2013 01:52 PM
Amanda from NYC

Does the audio play for anyone? I can't stream it, and when I tried to download it, the file had zero bytes. I listened to this one a few years ago and wanted to re-listen.

Aug. 21 2013 11:49 AM
L W Calhoun from Atlanta

The placebo effect is a form of mind control, and as such, its effects can be either positive or negative. Something works because someone believes it works.

Placebo is why witchcraft works. It’s real for those who believe it’s real.

Jun. 26 2013 05:03 PM
Daniel from Jacksonville, Fl.

I am a christian and I always find "healing" very suspicious. I do believe in the power of faith and I believe in the power of God. I also believe in a God that has the ability to heal and that perhaps people through faith can be healed of all kinds of illness. But to state that sickness is the devil living in you or that one may be sick because of lack of faith is unbiblical. This belief is just another silly thing that a small amount of christians believe but seems to get a lot of media attention, mainly because it is so mindless (a common theme that the media portrays Christians to be). We live in a world full of disease caused from all different things not because some one is possessed or the devil is attached to their spine and causes a curve. I would encourage people to take that segment lightly as the majority of Christians would not agree with what was reported on. Every church I have ever attended would never encourage someone to substitute medicine with prayer. Prayer is for faith, to grow closer to God, not to replace a doctor.

Jun. 25 2013 02:19 PM
ted from TX

On the placebo effect where you compared soldiers to ordinary folks. The soldiers were generally much younger (recruits) and have been in physical training for a year or two, andthey have had it drilled into their heads that nthey may be shot. They were conditioned fore th epain. On the other hand the ordinasry peoplewere probably older, not in great physical shape, and they were not at all perpared for being shot. I believe this Radio Lab story was sophomoric.

Jun. 23 2013 09:04 PM
Dave Vallee from Mahanoy City

It is troubling, and saddening to hear a religious ritual occurring in a medical training facility. Well, to hear it anywhere really.

I wonder if it would have invoked comment from the producers if the prayers had been offered to Zeus or Thor.

Likewise, you should have felt compelled to make some inquiry into the belief system of the woman who experienced the alleged faith healer. Yes, you were trying to maintain continuity of context, but the difference in how we form the stories that make possible the interactions of medical personnel, and those of charlatans should have been distinguished by your reporting. One way to have done that would have been to simply inquire of that woman if she wondered why Christ died for cures, and not for preventions. Oversight?

Jun. 23 2013 04:26 PM
Candace Clemens from Arlington, MA

Prof. Riffs - I was at a UC medical conference where an award was presented to the doctor whose researched proved for certain the efficacy of the placebo effect. This was after a doctor received an IgNobel award for the same conclusion. The power of the mind is the new frontier in science, and that is why all neurologists and psychiatrists need to study both. Nobody knows for sure how to distinguish between neurological impulses and behavioral manifestation.

Jun. 22 2013 11:00 PM
alan from atlanis

Before the library of Alexandria was burned there was just as much reason as when Ben Franklin started playing with kites. We just forgot. Check out the ancient discoveries series. there are six episodes this one is about robotics

Jun. 22 2013 06:35 PM

RE: the doctor who lost his confidence after a respected elder physician told him his claim of curing the boy of his skin problem was impossible:

My mother had a heart attack in 1974 and the cardiologist who treated her told her that she had about 10 years to live. (I found out from my sister after she died).

She had a heart attack and died two days past the 10th anniversary of her initial heart attack. (The kind of which is routinely treated in emergency rooms today).

I have long attributed this to the fact that my mother, not having graduated high school, put a lot of trust in people who were more educated than she. In effect, the doctor said she had 10 years, and she did as she was told.

Regarding the warts---I know someone who, as a child, had warts and they disappeared after she gave them to her friend (!) as per her doctor's instruction. Soon her warts were gone and her friend had them!

Jun. 21 2013 11:00 PM
John Parsons from Durham, NH

During the discussion of the color of sleeping pills, it was mentioned that in every country in the world, blue sleeping pills work for men - except in Italy. The explanation was that the Italian national football team is called The Blues (Gli Azzurri) and that the color represented the excitement of a game, thus preventing sleep. The problem with that reasoning is that right next door, in France, the national football team is also called The Blues (Les Bleus), so why do the pills work there? The French are just as passionate about their football as the Italians. Somewhere there must be a different reason for the failure of the pills in Italian men.

Jun. 21 2013 12:43 PM

I found the faith healing section very hard to listen to. I have scoliosis and hearing that it was "a sign of the devil" upset me to the point that I now avoid this episode. I don't think its bad! I personally just find it hard to listen to.

May. 30 2013 12:16 PM
Lou Vignates

Consider these terms together: "placebo effect," "spontaneous remission," "will to live," "expectation of getting better," and then consider that you don't explain anything by giving it a name.

Aug. 27 2012 06:31 AM


Feb. 26 2012 04:06 PM

harvard just started a program to research the placebo effect, website is

Jan. 06 2012 11:54 AM

I love the fact of the history on this topic.Medical trials still go on today with the placebo.Are you scared or is it your belief to judge this episode ?

Dec. 18 2011 12:01 AM
Professor Riffs

Maybe the worst episode of Radiolab. The placebo effect is quackery extreme... I can see no reason to give it this much positive attention.

Oct. 08 2011 02:44 PM
Aimee from Perth, Australia

I laughed when I heard the story of the lady's faith healing: I know how that trick works. You can try it yourself. First, the control: form an "O" between you thumb and forefinger, with your wrist straight. Try to pull through your thumb and forfinger with the other hand - I know I can't. Now form the "O" with your wrist bent at 90 degrees; this time it's easy to pull through the thumb and forefinger.

I'd bet a large Easter egg that that's how the faith healer did it. When the wrist is bent, the finger grip is significantly weaker.

Source: Practicing Aikido regularly.

Sep. 29 2011 05:01 AM

Finally! We sail beyond the domain of the merely scientific! This is the stuff leaps in knowledge are made of! But don't let anyone convince you that "we don't know why this works." We know plenty about why it works.

Sep. 10 2011 06:20 PM
AHodges from Indianapolis

The placebo affect is the only reason homeopathic hucksters can make a buck. They sell a "remedy" that is so diluted that it doesn't have ANY active ingredient. Don't get taken for a ride by these quacks. Be an educated and demanding consumer!

Aug. 07 2011 11:36 PM
PeterAlanHOffman from wes seeya

The part about the hypnosis reminds me of kungfu the legend continues where cain says something about how when the spirit is in control the body obeys. this is when he fell and hurt his hand and it healed because his mind commanded his body

Jul. 11 2011 09:42 PM
David from Chicago

Maybe there should be a follow-up given this info:
Dr. Ben Goldacre does a stand-up routine about medicine, the placebo effect, and the mysteries of the human body at Nerdstock.

Jan. 18 2011 02:06 PM

This is so cool! I was so excited when I heard this just a couple of days ago. I have to do a science project for my biology class, and I didn't realize it but it was closely related to placebos! I'm entering into the science fair. Hope I get to nationals!

Jan. 01 2011 02:30 PM
jeffredachmd from florida

Another placebo effect: A study published in JAMA reported that SSRI antidepressants are no better than placebo for most cases of depression. The authors reviewed 30 years of data and concluded that "the benefit of antidepressant medication compared with placebo may be minimal or nonexistent in patients with mild or moderate symptoms". ref JAMA 2010;303(1):47-53)

For more:

jeffrey dach md

Dec. 28 2010 09:45 AM

Here is an interesting story on NPR about placebos that work even when the patient knows what they are!

Dec. 23 2010 11:18 AM

where can i find those picturs of the buy with the warts on his arms

Nov. 24 2010 08:49 AM
nardan from USA

I hope the story about the boy with one arm healed had been checked, because in another interview it was the left arm that was healed:
"So I hypnotised him and told him that the warts would go from his left arm, and sent him away."

Oct. 26 2010 12:21 AM
mel from meadville, pa

i am fairly new to radio lab, and so i will listen to the podcasts over and over to make sure i gather all of the information and interpret it well... i thought this was a wonderful "article", however i strongly disagree with the mention of the soldiers in the battle field and their way of thinking... soldiers do not think about the awards they may receive or the parades that may be had- they are trained to work as a unit and their mind set was more likely to be a thought of "someone else needs the morphine" or even that their body was naturally "high" on adrenaline with a raised level of endorphins. i relate the comradeship closely to mother and child. soldiers are willing to die for each other, much like a mother would do for her child. they bond in ways that are unimaginable. they are faced with a life and death situation and they know that the actions as a unit will win the battle, actions as an individual will lose the battle and likely the life of yourself and others.

Sep. 14 2010 01:28 PM

The last part of the podcast mentions an old lady and her wrist problems. In the story, the lady said that the dude massaged her wrist. Not a lot of people know that massages can temporarily cure arthritis.

the old lady was tricked...

Aug. 04 2010 04:42 AM

Bob, you said it all and effectively cut this debate short. Congrats, you earned an Honorable Mention at the International Contest of Compact Statements which Cut Discussions Short. Heh heh heh. . .

Apr. 02 2010 11:54 AM
Bob Roney

Belief may heal but ignorance kills.

Mar. 20 2010 02:49 PM
Fast Eddie B. (Ed Benson)

Just an anecdote:

I saw a chiropractor for many, many years for low back problems. I would have said that the treatments seemed to work. Then I moved and stopped seeing a chiropractor. Now, 4 years later, I can say my back is better than ever, with NO manipulation.
I had a similar experience with glucosamine - it seemed to work, but when I stpped taking it I could see no difference.

Just my .02.

Mar. 07 2010 09:16 AM

what happened to the boy whose 1 arm was cured of Congenital Ichthyosiform Erythroderma? did the rest of his skin ever heal? or just the 1 arm? find him and do a follow up interview!

Jan. 26 2010 10:01 PM

I found it interesting that the shaman story at the beginning of the show seems to contradict the conclusion of your hypnotist doctor, yet no mention is made of this on the show. The shaman-in-training knew he was a fake, and found he healed people anyway. This seems to undercut the medical hypnotist's opinion.

Jan. 13 2010 06:01 PM

Chris, that's a terrible story, but I think you are overreacting to this broadcast. Radiolab and the people they interviewed acknowledged the limitations of the placebo effect.

Would you also fault them for exploring the wonders of Asprin merely because it can't cure cancer?

Jan. 08 2010 11:41 AM
Marco Raaphorst

again such a play with audio

greetings from Holland

Jan. 03 2010 09:05 AM

Somewhat new to Radiolab, I had not heard this broadcast before. I didn't perceive this article as being about healing per se, or as espousing placebo treatments in particular, but as a conversation about what is known, and becoming more consciously known, about one of the elegant complexities of the mind. And about how we experience these phenomena daily, moment by moment, and this knowledge is reflected outright in our languages and cultures to the point that it is usually unnoticed among what we consider the conscious, logical landscape of life. Thank you, Radiolab for, again, agitating the mixture so that intriguing bubbles may surface.

Dec. 31 2009 04:14 AM

Also, I've been going to PT and chiropractic for 3 months. Chiropractic is only half of the story. The only way to permanently change the way the spine is going to align is to strengthen it. A lot of doctors know this and will strictly not to physical therapy so that they can hold on to a patient longer.

Dec. 30 2009 06:06 PM

You have a great point about pseudoscience but you can't dismiss chiropractic medicine entirely. After a violent car accident, your spine can be seriously damaged. As in, the force of the wreck can cause muscles and bones to shift in ways that cause extreme discomfort. Also, some people develop scoliosis after childhood which can cause severe pain and discomfort.

Some chiropractors are all too happy to crack the bones of young children, pregnant mothers, and those of us too weak to realize that we're being ripped off. It's unfortunate that the system can be abused for money that way.

On the other hand, chiropractic can be extraordinarily helpful for a large amount of people. I hurt my back at work and was told by two doctors that I probably fractured or dislocated a rib. They didn't take X-rays but pumped me full of painkillers and anti-inflammatories. I went to a chiropractor based on a recommendation of a coworker. The doctor took an X-ray and my spine was seriously messed up. About my tailbone it started to curve left, then right, then at midback it curved left again. The curve is pinching nerves in various places, leaving me with really bizarre side effects.

For example, I can now tell how crooked my back is by how often I have to use the restroom. I know my bladder isn't full, but the nerves from my spine are being affected telling my bladder that it is full prematurely. Sometimes I'll go every two hours! I know it isn't related to any other disease because I am under 25 and when I go to physical therapy and chiropractic like I'm supposed to, the symptoms vanish. I haven't had trouble with that in a while since I've strengthened by back into holding its shape.

Applied properly, chiropractic can provide a wealth of relief to those with GENUINE problems. Any good chiropractor should have taken X-rays regularly on a patient being treated for a crooked spine. You can't tell what is going on by touch alone.

Also, if it takes 7 years to treat back pain... Perhaps 6 years ago a second opinion would have been a life saver. I don't mean any offense, I'm just saddened that these doctors sometimes put money ahead of people's lives and livelihoods.

Dec. 30 2009 06:04 PM
Chris Smith

I really am disappointed. I somehow had missed this episode in when it was originally puked out upon us. The disservice that you do is amazing.

Here is another story about who the placebo effect works. A man who went to a chiropractor for 7 years straight to receive some minor relief from the constant back pain he suffered from, was informed by the new owner of the practice that perhaps he should visit with a medical doctor. He chose to do so and after three X-rays and a CT scan, the cancer diagnosis that was now unstoppable was shared with him. Of course 7 years too late; he died and left his wife with 3 boys to raise.

Belief in pseudoscience kills good people.

These charlatans kill people. They propagate fear, they propagate mistrust, and you have turned around and propagated that mistrust of science and medicine. How many people will now not seek real treatment because of your lack of a proper education on the science of these alleged phenomena….how many will die because of your lack of responsibility?

Dec. 30 2009 04:05 PM
Kandice Garibay

This broadcast, for me, confirms the idea that thought holds more power than most people give it credit for. Just imagine how far we can go...

Dec. 30 2009 03:11 PM
Wissam Dow

Oui. I as well...

Dec. 30 2009 03:16 AM

Oh, shucky darns. A rebroadcast. Oh well.

I'm patiently waiting for two weeks from now. Verrrry patiently.
Season 6 was great. I'm hoping for a great follow-up in season 7.

Dec. 28 2009 11:44 PM

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