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Pinpointing the Placebo Effect

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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 bay. That little white pill may be inducing some very real effects. We talk to placebo experts Fabrizio Benedetti and Tor Wager who tell us about the well-stocked pharmacy in our brains, just waiting to be unlocked.

Then pain expert, Dr. Daniel Carr, takes us to the WWII Battle of Anzio, where a puzzled young medic sees that the same bullet can create very different experiences of pain. And Daniel Moerman tells us how the color of a pill effects how well Italians sleep.


Fabrizio Benedetti, Dr. Daniel Carr, Daniel Moerman and Tor Wager

Comments [31]

barton springer

these mothereffing radio dudes are effing nauseating, F--k!

Jan. 23 2018 09:50 AM
Ray from Maine

If you want to hear something else amazing about the placebo effect, check out this story from Morning Edition on research by Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer involving placebo and exercise.

Feb. 15 2017 11:58 AM
Jean from Vt

As a psychotherapist who treats trauma let me tell you you folks really got the military narrative wrong.

I get your point about the context of the pain matters. (you referred to this as the narrative.) BUT wounded warriors are NOT hoping for individual medal!. Or getting to go home. You guys do not know the military mindset when you suggest that a wounded military man or woman is bolstered (thru pain) by the thought that they'll get an award or by going home. Its the TEAM MINDSET that is profoundly motivating. In this case it'd be getting up off the friggin' ground and helping their buddies. Or (later, while healing) by minimizing the pain (and the PTSD)so as to get back in there and help buddies.

Where did you get your information?! To me, that brings into question the validity of other material you present.

Aug. 02 2016 07:19 AM
X3r0 Tucker from Chicago

First, I need to remind (or tell) everyone how misunderstood a placebo and its' effect are - I'm very confident that if you ask most anyone, including health care proffesionals, if a placebo and "no treatment" are the same, they will confidently say, "yes." Furthermore, what is stopping placebos from populating pharmacies to be used at the discrecion of the perscribing doc, is the "ethical problem"" of perscribing a non-drug substance for a patient. Both issues here highight the fact that the PLACEBO EFFECT IS A GOOD THING THAT IMPROVES THE LIVES OF PATIENTS IN NEED - IT IS NOT AT ALL THE SAME AS NO TREATMENT, AND IGNORING THE PSYCHOLGICAL IMPACT ON PRESCRIPTIONN PRACTICE HAS DEADLY AND AVOIDABLE CONSEQUENCES THAT MAY BE RESOLVED BY TURNING TO THE PLACEBO.: Specifically - Drug resistant bacterial infections have killed and will kill more in the future, so when a doctor admits to overperscribing anti-biotics, this should not be taken lightly - THIS OVERPERSCRIPTION COULD LEAD YOU YES YOU READIGG THIS to one day get infected by a bacteria that kills you instead of being easily treated, duee directly to this trend of overusing antibiotics.

SOLUTION: BEgin every drug regimine routinely with placebo drugs, if improvement is noted despite no "active" chemical present, maintai this treatment until the condition is resolved or improvement stops and change course accordingly - discontinue meds or switch to active drug respecitvely.

Jul. 17 2015 02:59 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. It kind of ruined the credibility of his persona.

May. 21 2015 11:13 AM
oregon_girl99 from Oregon

I enjoy Radio Lab very much, BUT.... the style of the host interjecting his voice in place of the guest was way too frequent in this episode. It was unnerving to listen to. Your personalities are getting in the way of the story. Pleeeeease, let us hear the expert guests speak! Your constant interruptions are NOT adding anything to the story.

Apr. 26 2015 02:14 PM
Sophie from Bay Area, California

Hi love your show! Only discovered it recently and I've been binge listening to it all. Anyways just wanted to say there's something wrong with the play and download link on this particular audio file.

- Sophie

Mar. 02 2015 12:43 AM
Daniel Sikora from Belgium

Hi there,

I was intrigued by the quote of Dr. Daniel Carr, when talking about Dr. Beecher at the Battle of Anzio. Is this quote in his book, or can I find some more about it in another publication?

time: 17m30s

the quote: "Scientists currently view our whole identity as something that we construct, one fraction of a second to another. You are the unfolding of an ongoing narrative. But it’s not just the narrative in words: it’s a narrative that involves touch, colour, odors,… We use all those inputs to generate the next frame from the last frame."


Dec. 14 2014 07:29 PM
Arel from California

Has anyone ever studied the relationships between placebo effect and:
a. number and qualities of opioid brain receptors, at least as manifest by susceptibility to opioids if not by some sort of imaging; or
b. susceptibility to hypnosis.

I'm wondering because I don't respond to opioids (except to morphine, which does remove pain to an uncomfortable distance but is extremely unpleasant); I have not been successfully hypnotized; and I don't respond to pills that other people say should fix things (phenylephrine, for instance, as a substitute for pseudephedrine--I don't feel completely daft about that one because a pharmacist told me phenylephrine doesn't actually work). If I'm not among the 25% who respond to placebos, why am I not? For the same reason I might as well drink water as take codeine? And are there other related effects if this is due to a lack of opioid receptors, such as an inability to be hypnotized?

Apr. 27 2014 12:30 AM

Amazing program! It prompts so many questions about our medical beliefs. Great work, Radiolab!

Jun. 23 2013 09:54 AM
Ion Birch

In response to Julia who asked about the shaman studied by Franz Boas. I was also curious about this and found information some info here:

Mar. 13 2013 01:12 AM

The part about the boy with the elephant skin was interesting.So was the part about the blue pills.👽

Dec. 25 2011 06:23 PM

To learn more about the mechanism of placebos, and see videos that very much show that placebos can actually produce real results see:

Apr. 23 2011 09:41 PM
Thaddaeus from Sioux City

I just discovered Radio Lab thanks This American Life. Can anyone identify the music being played around the 42 mark of the podcast. It's mainly piano but had a very calming effect.

Aug. 02 2010 09:37 PM
Emily Henochowicz

Last week I got shot in the face with a tear gas canister at the Qalandia Checkpoint in the West Bank. People would tell me, "I can't imagine how much that would hurt," but the truth of matter was, I wasn't in very much pain. Maybe because I was so pleased that my brain from the outset was obviously intact, maybe because so many people came to visit me in the hospital and wish me well, maybe it's because this was an act of injustice and there is a story to be told and a battle to be won. I'm sure a car accident would have been excruciating.

Jun. 08 2010 04:09 AM
pc from Toronto, ON

I love radiolab, but a lot of these links aren't working - or you need to be a subscriber to see them. :(

Feb. 28 2010 02:22 PM
Doug Geyer from Evanston, IL

Very touched to hear an interview with A A Mason, whose article "A Psychoanalyst Looks at a Hypnotist: A Study of Folie À Deux" in the Psychoanalytic Quarterly of 1994 I consider essential reading.

Dec. 29 2009 07:49 PM
Julie from Mpls, MN

I'm currently enrolled in the Marriage & Family Therapy graduate program at Saint Mary's University in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and this episode is an assignment from my Statistics teacher. I haven't listened to the episode yet, but the comments about it have piqued my interest. Thanks.

Jun. 15 2009 02:14 PM
Julia from Burlingame, California

Just a quick question:

I am trying to figure out how to spell the name of the Shaman described in the beginning on the show. He's from the Kwakiutl tribe of British Columbia, his name sounds like "qe-so-lid", and he was studied by Franz Boas...

Jun. 02 2009 03:32 PM
Margi from Mullumbimby, Australia

In answer to your comment Tom, we have been interested in this phenomena of self healing with placebos, and have been following the placebo debate over the last 2 years.

As conscious purveyors of placebos, we are concerned with the potential for the placebo effect to inspire self- healing. . . there is some evidence to suggest that ingesting a placebo *in the awareness that it is a placebo* may still gain some benefit.
There are some stories on our website which illustrate some different ways in which knowingly taking a placebo has been effective.
We are the original suppliers of placebos to the general public. We welcome your comments and feedback on your *placebo experiences*

Jul. 13 2008 07:47 PM
Tom from England

How can one induce the "placebo effect" on oneself?
In other words how can one instill faith in oneself to treat oneself using the "placebo effect"?
If not, does one have to try to "trick" oneself into a "self-belief" mindset to produce the "placebo effect", and if possible how would one accomplish that? Tom.

Jun. 24 2008 01:52 PM
Christine Saum from Cambridge, MA

If you want to hear something else amazing about the placebo effect, check out this story from Morning Edition on research by Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer involving placebo and exercise.

Feb. 28 2008 05:57 PM
ME from Wisconsin Dells Wisconsin


Jul. 15 2007 12:07 PM
Dixie Yid from East Coast

I very much enjoy the sound effects and the way you play with the human voice. Please keep it up!

-Dixie Yid

Jul. 03 2007 10:49 AM
ken jacobsen from tempe az

I tried listening to "Placebo" for a few minutes but the annoying way it was edited, which was apparently supposed to be cute or entertaining, was so annoying I had to give up. PLEASE if you want people to listen to your programming, don't play silly games with it.

Jul. 01 2007 06:28 PM
Tom Clear from Chicago

This was the best show I ever heard on
public radio. Thanks, and keep it up!

Jun. 25 2007 02:50 PM
Dixie Yid from East Coast

I agree with the previous commenters. Radio Lab is, by far, my favorite NPR program. I've posted some of my reflections on this portion of the program and that is available here:

-Dixie Yid

Jun. 20 2007 10:31 AM
Gerald Wilson

My favorite episode so far this season has been Sleep. But Placebo is a close second. Amazing stuff. Bravo WNYC!

May. 26 2007 05:57 PM
jan allison from new york, new york

The program on placebos was fascinating as a subject, but in addition, it was a model of effective teaching strategies -- the use of repetition, the variety of examples, the previewing of a subtopic, the various voices and music. I want my students to research a topic and model their class presentations on your style. Kudos!

May. 21 2007 01:40 PM
Anwar Nunez from Berkeley, CA

I've been waiting for new episodes for too long! I can't express the excitement I felt when I first saw the release dates. My near feature will revolve around this.
Every Radio Lab episode from season one and two can be used as a benchmark for perfection, even beatuy, on radio shows. We can, no doubt, expect this measure to be surpassed in the coming weeks.

May. 17 2007 07:23 PM
Linda Gerver from Kings Park, New York

I love Radio Lab. I stumbled on it one day and can't wait to hear it again. It is one of the best shows on radio.

May. 15 2007 09:59 PM

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