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The Hypnotist and the Warts

Saturday, June 22, 2013 - 04:00 AM

If you haven't listened to Placebo yet, do that before you read this spoiler-strewn post -- just hit the play button above before you go any further.

In February of 1951, Dr. Albert Mason began treating a teenage patient whose skin was so ravaged that after two unsuccessful skin grafts, his plastic surgeons agreed they could do nothing else to help him.

Mason knew he was up against a big challenge. Most of the boy's body -- everything but his face, neck, and chest -- was covered in a "black horny layer" of skin that Mason said "felt as hard as a normal finger-nail, and was so inelastic that any attempt at bending resulted in a crack in the surface, which would then ooze blood-stained serum." On top of that, Mason's treatment plan didn't exactly inspire confidence in his colleagues: he was going to try hypnosis.

On the plus side, Mason had had success using hypnosis on patients with warts before, and he figured it might help this kid. So he decided to start with the boy's left arm (he specified one body part at a time in order to isolate a direct cause and effect from hypnosis). The arm cleared up in under two weeks.

As Mason moved on to the rest of the boy's body, he documented his progress -- which was shocking, especially once Mason realized he wasn't treating a bad case of warts (as he'd originally thought), but an incurable disease: congenital ichthyosiform erythrodermia.* Stunned by the boy's improvement, he typed up a paper charting his results in 1952 (PDF). Complete with photos...

The boy's right arm (a) before beginning hypnosis, (b) eight days after treatment was begun, showing complete regression of ichthyosiform skin:

Patient's legs seen from the right (a) before hypnosis, (b) four weeks after treatment, showing complete regression of ichthyosiform skin in some areas and improvement in others.

Skin on the boy's right thigh (a) before treatment, (b) one month after treatment was begun:

Photos by Gordon Clemetson, courtesy of Albert Mason, British Medical Journal, August 23, 1952

* This realization hit Mason hard. It rattled his confidence, and his future hypnosis treatments -- so much so, that he eventually gave it up, and came to the conclusion that hypnosis is a "folie à deux," or "madness shared by two."


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Comments [41]

chris from texas

I had warts on my hands as a teen. My friend said theyll go away after i get 18 and they did. I believed they would and they did.
Recently, in my 40s, warts appeared on my fingers. I applied baking soda paste mixed with apple cider vinegar just once. Forgot about it and two months later noticed they were all gone. I also drank acv with baking soda but think the paste did it

Jul. 05 2017 11:22 PM
Luke from Maritimes, Canada

When I was a child, for as long as I could remember I had warts on my hands. There were only a few, but we had tried for several years to get rid of them. When I was 6 or 7 my mom took me to see a "wart charmer" someone who charmed warts away. We went to his house, talked for a few minutes, he asked to see the warts. Once he looked at them for a second he said to me "okay, that's it, just forget about them and they'll go away". I was very skeptical as he hadn't actually done anything, I was expecting a cream, ointment, or something along those lines. Within 2 weeks they were completely gone with only a small red mark where the skin was healing, none of them came back. I was shocked that they were gone, I hadn't even noticed them till they weren't there anymore.

Mar. 01 2017 10:00 PM
tamara gurin from California

For those skeptical of the placebo effect, power of faith in healing, watch this video. Chronic back pain goes away from hearing a lecture or reading a book. And the testimony comes not from Joe Schmoe, but from well-respected Senator Tom Harkin and many other famous and not so famous people who would not put their reputation on the line for a questionable sensation.

There is much more to spontaneous healing. You can read the book Spontaneous Healing by A. Weil, a Harvard-trained physician.

Human brain is complex and to claim absolute knowledge and understanding of it is a sign of ignorance. Just because you went to college for so many years, you should not dismiss or ignore facts that healing is possible without a big bottle of pills or a surgery.

Dec. 17 2016 04:17 PM

Super interesting show, guys (as always!). Sorry that people are being rude on here.

I have a really stubborn and painful plantar wart on my foot. I've tried everything to no avail. Who wants to hypnotize me?

Dec. 09 2016 01:22 PM
Oakley Tapola from Minneapolis, MN

Can we please hear an elaboration on the bit about identity? That part really fascinated me but it was really brief and it'd be great to get an entire episode devoted to the scientific explanation on it (or the intersection of neurology and consciousness or something). Thank you!

Sep. 09 2016 05:07 AM
Victor Tepes from Virginia-USA

I grew up in the forests of the Appalachian Mountains. When I was a teen I had many stubborn warts around my fingernails and was very self-conscious about them. I had them burned away, frozen away with liquid nitrogen, and even surgically cut away. They always reappeared. My father kept pestering me about going to see this old man who lived with his wife in a remote "hollar" in the same county who could "bless" the warts away. I resisted doing this because I am not a superstitious person and believed it to be silly. Finally, to stop my father's persistent nagging, I went to see the old man. When I went to his home he met me in front of his house and he knew why I was there. He touched his fingers to his tongue then to my warts and said some things under his breath that I couldn't understand. Then he said that he knew my grandfather and that it was nice to have met me then told me to "give it a while" and went back inside his house. These warts I had for six years disappeared over two weeks time. I never tell this story to anyone who knows me because I am sure they would think that I was lying or crazy.

Aug. 27 2016 12:53 AM
Tanja from the midwest

I absolutely love this program! Can't understand why this particular program upsets so many people. I love how it shares so many interesting examples which illustrate just a tiny bit of how much we just do not understand or know. ... more than that, I like how it challenges the absoluteness of what people think they know!
Good stuff.

Aug. 14 2016 11:44 PM
John Bolger from New Jersey

You can heal physical ailments with hypnosis. The basis of all healing is a change of beliefs. If you believe you’ll heal and get better – you will get better. You will strengthen your belief with hypnosis.

May. 11 2015 12:25 PM
Kristin G. from Cincinnati Ohio

Love the story! So intriguing : )
How does listening to the story affect the efficacy of applying a similar method?

May. 09 2015 01:46 PM
Dan O'Connell

I love Radiolab and listen regularly. However, I have to agree that you dropped the ball with this episode. The subject of the power of suggestion in its many forms is worthy of you, but to take a few isolated (albeit interesting) examples and try to draw conclusions from them completely misses the potential, and invites misunderstanding and confusion.

Why use one hypnotist with one success story to his name? One who concludes that it is was case of "shared madness"? Why not a professional with a career-full of documented cases to explore?

Why one on-stage faith healer, using one obviously questionable result? There are plenty of people successfully doing religion-based healing, and shamans around the world performing amazing feats.

You mentioned rapport almost in passing, yet building and keeping rapport is arguably one of the most important skills any healer can have.

There is just so much to explore here, from medicine, science, mind/body theory, cultural and religious beliefs and practices - this episode left listeners with nothing to sink their teeth into.

May. 08 2015 05:37 PM

I don't know. I use to love this show. The episodes on space and time were fabulous. Loved the show on zoos. Parasites was great. Lately however, I have been totally underwhelmed.

Apr. 29 2015 09:26 AM

Thanks Radiolab.

Apr. 28 2015 02:56 PM
MN from United States

I enjoy the show, but why do you always use
the present tense for talking about events in the past????

Apr. 26 2015 09:46 PM
JT from Kula (Maui), Hawaii

While the example of the placebo efect is a sugar pill, we might instead define it as "effective for unknown reasons." Dismissing it because of its anecdotal nature limits science rather than promoting it. As for the doc's loss of confidence, you might go back to one of the old episodes of The Twilight Zone. "You gots to believe," the kid tells Boley, "or the magic won't work." Alas. Boley, like any number of science-minded people out here, can't do it, much to his loss.

Apr. 26 2015 06:41 AM
Paul from boston

I wonder if this method would have helped this man in Romania:

Part 1:
Part 2:
Part 3:

Apr. 25 2015 03:43 PM

Disappointed in this one, first time and this time. When certain topics are discussed, especially anything involving religion and faith healing, it's fair to let people know what the point is, or what the conflict is. Yes, critical thinking (simply put, the ability to cut through one's preconceptions and consider concepts on their own merits) is necessary to suss out what this program is doing. RadioLab does this a lot, and is one of the things I enjoy most about it. But this particular program is so ambiguous, I'm not certain you succeeded. I am surprised that you didn't at least introduce the possibility that the diagnosis of incurable disease itself was wrong in the cast of the boy with warts-rather than let it drop with a. You did a pretty decent job showing how faith healing (especially on stage) uses simple techniques (and a lot of dramatics) to give the appearance of healing when distraction (or is more likely at work. But I wonder if you dropped the ball in your discussion of the "placebo effect", and got off track with it's limitations vs the desperate wish to protect one's belief system. I have to agree that the suppositions about pain effect in wounded soldiers and some guy who is unexpectedly shot while going about his affairs don't wash. This could have been much more interesting and provocative than it was. But then, not all your shows are going to be winners. I'll still listen, 'cause the good ones are really good.

Apr. 25 2015 02:18 PM
Alan Woods from Columbus, OH

Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, authors of "Auntie Mame" and "Inherit the Wind," among other plays, used Mesmer as the source for their play, "Whisper n the Mind," produced in 1994 at Missouri Repertory Theatre, about the meeting between Mesmer and Benjamin Franklin. The play is archived in the Lawrence and Lee Theatre Research Institute at Ohio State University.

Apr. 25 2015 01:56 PM
Geoff from The Terrific Northwest

Very good show RL.

Is there any link to the full text of the article you link in abstract? I am ashamed to say that my subscription to Psychoanalysis Quarterly is not up-to-date. Otherwise please feel free to email it to me Ms Farrell.

The article I am talking about is "A psychoanalyst looks at a hypnotist: a study of folie à deux."

You can cure warts by crossing them out with a regular pen each day until they are gone. A kid taught me this in the playground when I was about 7. It works.

Sep. 25 2014 02:24 AM

The faith healer in the last story did indeed reduce her pain. The story states "he gives him her hand, he takes it in both of his ... and he starts rubbing with his thumbs". This is a well-understood and common mechanism for reducing pain -- it is why children rub sites of impact after minor accidents which result in bruises. Briefly, pain sensation and several distinct sensors for touch sensation all provide parallel sensations for a part of the body, in this case, the woman's hand. These sensations arrive in the spinal chord in parallel before the information is relayed to the brain. In the absence of rubbing, the chronically active pain fibers dominate the signal sent to the brain. The physical stimulation provided by the rubbing temporarily inhibits the relay of the chronic pain signal at this relay point in the spine, although these pain-sensing fibers continue to signal the presence of pain to the relay point. The arrangement of the relay point effectively prevents the pain signal from traveling any further. This happens because the rubbing sensation is new, and potentially important, whereas the pain is fairly constant; a change is important to emphasize in the event that it signifies something good or bad, whereas a signal that is fairly constant is less important for attention. An injured organism escaping a predator need not attend to the pain resulting from an injury if, during flight, it has suddenly become ensnared in a vine; sensing the ensnarement immediately is far more important for successful escape than sensing the pain, which will persist. At the level of our conscious awareness, the pain is 'miraculously' (albeit temporarily) absent because the signal from the pain fibers has been temporarily shut off so as to emphasize the new sensation of the faith healer rubbing her hand. This also satisfactorily explains why the pain returned later -- the faith healer was no longer "over-riding" the pain signal by rubbing her hand.

(For more technical details search for "The Gate Theory of Pain". For example, )

Presumably, the temporary pain reduction allowed her to exert increased strength during the 2nd demonstration. It is interesting to note that the faith healer was sufficiently confident in the efficacy of his healing in this case that he employed a stronger finger on the 2nd try.

As for the placebo effect in general, I can offer no satisfying technical argument. The Parkinson's case is particularly interesting.

May. 28 2014 03:16 AM
Joseph campbell from oviedo

Ican truley relate to this that the mind will in fact do what you ask it to do. the term mind over matter is in fact very real and that the human mind can heal the physical body

May. 04 2014 07:59 PM
James from florida

I'm married to the most woderful woman, her father is s doctor who funnily enough trained at Guys hospital as well... years after, his best friend was hit with cancer and in a vain search for a cure my father-in-law learned hypnotherepy. My wife had warts on her hands and remembers the feeling of them burning away under hypnosis. We are from the UK and, looking at some of the previous comments, have a broader view of the mind, the world, and our relativity to both. My Wife and her father are not mystics quacks or socialist nutjobs. This has worked, perhaps not on everyone, but it isn't quack science.
Sceptics, turn from fox news, there is a bigger and yes "real" world out there.

Apr. 28 2014 12:43 AM
Patrick Kelly

So the carpal tunnel lady goes back to normal right after. How unexpected. Stop believing in magic, people. You're embarrassing yourselves.

Apr. 27 2014 03:42 PM
Sarah Latimer from MA

The assertion in the broadcast that "Christian belief" is that we've already been healed and just need to access it is a misunderstanding. The sect of Christianity which is being explored is not recognized by much of orthodox Christianity. The "Health/Wealth" movement is considered by many of us to be an heretical movement which denies the real work of Jesus. His death was not to heal our carpal tunnel, but to pay the unpayable debt for our sin in order to reconcile us with God. Formulaic healings may well use the placebo affect, but they are not a doctrine of the church.

Apr. 27 2014 10:21 AM
Bill Tucker

So, just what IS a miracle? It is a great big freebie that goes against the Laws of Nature. For example, curing cancer overnight, or receiving a millions dollars as a gift from a bank (both of which I have done multiple times!) But, my biggest miracle to date was raising a dead little girl back to life at a local hospital. Read all about them at:

Apr. 27 2014 09:29 AM
Bill Tucker

The answer the good hypnotist doctor was looking for is contained in Mark 11:22-25, wherein Jesus was teaching his Disciples how they, too, could perform miracles. He gave them a 3-part "formula" that most reades only see as one part, and thus, do not receive their miracle requests on a consistant basis. I explore this "formula" in my book, "Miracles Made Possible" ( wherein I teach everybody how they can receive any and every miracle they Thank God for, WHEN they desire it!

Apr. 27 2014 09:19 AM
Jonathan A Stensland from Minneapolis

"Critical thinking" becomes a cliches as soon as it starts to enforce the findings to fit a known mode of behavior. The very way we define one reality as different in some manner from another is by noticing that something peculiar to that phenomenon is different from how something else is made, or happens. Electricity isn't magnetism, yet there is electromagnetic phenomenon. And we move to explain that rather than name the one exploring electromagnetic fields a quack. Science can become nothing better than a self-enforcing narrow set of superstitious principles, when trying to explain quarks with a little dab of Isaac Newton. It seems there is just a lot of fear involved in some tweaky compulsions to have all phenomenon fit the picture of the already known. "Placebo effect" itself is a limited principle and label; it doesn't explain anything about the actual mechanics of the effect; the complex neurology involved in unitary fields of experience and influence. It is sufficient sometimes to acknowledge facts and just say "science unknown" when a phenomenon is evidently established. I might take a shot at a theory, here, but not today.

Apr. 26 2014 07:28 PM
Jonathan A Stensland from Minneapolis

I did not get to hear the whole show, but wished I could. So, came back to it, here. Reading the angry comments of "critical thinkers", I hasten to the front lines to piss on that thinking that likes to think germ-theory is the holy grail to all that ails us, as if a theory about forest fires was sufficient to understand all of nature. If hypnotherapy worked, it worked. If there is a curative effect to a rapport, it suggests that we are vulnerable to negative effects of "critical thinkers" in our environments, as well as "holistic thinkers" whose influence is benevolent...if the emotional rapport is serious, necessary, crucial, total. The human brain is not something designed by Plato or any other philosopher, and "Critical thinking" didn't create it; evolutionary interests did. It has archaic roots, and an represents an ancient pedigree of genetic interests. And so called "critical thinker" that cannot begin there, begin considering what it actually means that an organ that complex and running its routines at neural light speeds is going to be merely obedient to x critical theory or y sentimental expectation just isn't being intellectually faithful. There are all brands of critical thinking; the German of the Nazi era was the beneficiary of a few marvelous centuries of some of the best critical thinking, sustained in sciences and arts; a critical thinking follows a given principle from a granted premise. That's all it is. Change the premise or principle and the rationality follows a fresh direction, advantaged by its ability to develop instruments to enhance that direction of exploration. Good faith is all one can ask from a critical intelligence; when that is lacking, then cry. When that is present, then let the line develop. Previous science has never been a sacred cow for very long, when it is inadequate to measuring a phenomenon that clearly happens. Reality isn't rational; it is real. The function of consciousness in charge of mapping reality isn't rational; the one in charge of racking meaning is. The one in charge of calculating value is; but the reality function is no more rational than a dream. It is not rational, but real. A rock is not a rational object; nor is a tree. It is a real phenomenon, and so is lightning. We can make rational statements about reality, but we cannot make reality happen rationally. It doesn't. We do not make our dreams follow a rational footprint, either; they follow the gradients of an ancient organ that lives in a tangible living geology of biology, woven with neurology and arteriology and lymphatic systems; not rational but functional and real.

Apr. 26 2014 07:27 PM
Linda Matthews from San Francisco, CA

Another STUPID Radio Lab. You can't call these people reporters. They are wide eyed idiots. I hate it when this show comes on on Saturdays, and this time I didn't rush to turn it off in time.

Sure, the mind can make the body do things - that is the whole basis of the "placebo effect."

But for these mindless idiots to watch a "faith" healing and not use their analytical skills (apparently they don't have any) to think that the woman isn't trying to please the healer and relaxes muscles when he is saying she is ill, and then tightening them when he is saying she is cured, YOU"VE GOT TO BE KIDDING ME. What a TERRIBLE example you are giving the younger viewers, who are already challenged in their critical thinking! I wish the producers of this show would get a clue - or an education.

Apr. 26 2014 05:04 PM
Linda Matthews from San Francisco, CA

Another STUPID Radio Lab. You can't call these people reporters. They are wide eyed idiots. I hate it when this show comes on on Saturdays, and this time I didn't rush to turn it off in time.

Sure, the mind can make the body do things - that is the whole basis of the "placebo effect."

But for these mindless idiots to watch a "faith" healing and not use their analytical skills (apparently they don't have any) to think that the woman isn't trying to please the healer and relaxes muscles when he is saying she is ill, and then tightening them when he is saying she is cured, YOU"VE GOT TO BE KIDDING ME. What a TERRIBLE example you are giving the younger viewers, who are already challenged in their critical thinking! I wish the producers of this show would get a clue - or an education.

Apr. 26 2014 05:02 PM
Katherine Hoover

Yet science and medicine continue to treat Christian Science and related religions with mockery, while they continue to heal. Why no respectful research on what they actually do accomplish?

Apr. 26 2014 12:46 PM

Brilliant! I am currently a medical school hopeful and the stories told in this episode represent my interest in working with the sick..

The human mind-body connection is truly amazing and I am glad you guys portrayed it's power in pain management.

Apr. 25 2014 09:49 AM
Victor Frankenstein

As one interested in the medical field, I find this to be intriguing. Is it just coincidence? Is Mason really something special? An incurable disease cured in less than 2 weeks with just some soothing words and fairy dust is extremely strange. In fact, all the stories told, especially those of hypnosis, super spooky. Humans are ridiculously complex and needless to say, weird.

Apr. 24 2014 07:16 PM
F. Smith from Boston

Whatever the cause, this does work. I had warts that refused to be burned off all over one hand. I finally tried hypnosis and in a matter of a few weeks they were completely gone.

Feb. 14 2014 12:22 PM

Exert from original article explaining why the suggestion was aimed at one limb at a time:
"On February 10, 1951, the patient was hypnotized and,
under hypnosis, suggestion was made that the left arm
would- clear. (The suggestion was limited to the left arm
so as to exclude the possibility of spontaneous resolution.)"

Dec. 14 2013 02:53 PM
Brian from St Louis Missouri

After listening to this story I thought, I have some warts on my hand, let me see if I can make mine go away. Well I just remembered this the other day when I noticed I don't have anymore warts. Previous to that story I had at least 10 on my right hand and a few on my left. So thanks.

Sep. 05 2013 12:05 PM
K8TIY from Ann Arbor MI

"Barleycorn, barleycorn,
Injun meal shorts,
spunkwater, spunkwater,
swaller these warts!"

Mark Twain had it all along.

Jul. 16 2013 09:23 PM
LauraMaura from Austin, TX

How is it that once again, religion has wormed itself into another story that should be about science? At least the coat ceremony makes it clear where some doctors are set on the road to a god complex. ugh.

Jul. 12 2013 01:04 PM
GregG from Marietta, GA

I can totally relate to this story. When I was a kid, I had a couple of warts (commonly referred to as seed warts) on my fingers. Nothing major, but I wanted to get rid of them. One day, my dad told me to take a washcloth down to the woods, scrub the wart, throw the washcloth behind me and never look back. For some reason, I totally believed it would work. The warts were gone a few days later. I always figured it was just mind over matter.

Jun. 29 2013 09:04 PM
Miz Molly Mae

Why treat one at a time? To test the hypothosis.If he did it all, there could be the argument that the initial diagnosis was wrong and that it was a coincidence that it healed then.

Jun. 26 2013 01:35 PM
Kiesha Pringle

Why would the doctor only cure one arm at a time?

Jun. 23 2013 09:22 PM
christopher m stock from minneapolis

The power of the mind is truly amazing

Jun. 22 2013 05:19 PM

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