Could it be possible one day to treat pain by building on what is already known about the placebo effect and its very real impact on the brain?
A placebo is a dummy pill (made of an inert and non-psychoactive substance like sugar) given to a patient and the placebo effect is the change in the patient’s condition as a result of having taken the placebo.
This placebo effect results from the power of the patient’s beliefs, expectations, perceptions, conditioning, and desires in relation to the dummy pill. Indeed, it has been shown that these Attitudes and cognitions affect activity in brain areas associated with the processing of pain (see below).
Even the cost of a drug can affect its effectiveness e.g. if the patient is told the drug is very expensive this raises his/her expectations about its quality which, in turn, makes it work better.
BRAIN AREAS INVOLVED IN THE PLACEBO EFFECT:
Three brain areas that are involved in generating the placebo effect are:
- the amygdala
- the hippocampus
- the nucleus accumbens
Let’s look at each of these in turn:
- The amygdala plays a central role in our belief system and, of course, the strength of our beliefs are at the core of the placebo effect
- The hippocampus is involved in memory processing and therefore with conditioned responses (e.g. when I am given medicine it improves my health). As we saw above, conditioning plays an important role in the placebo effect.
- The nucleus accumbens is involved in the perception of reward and goal-directed behavior and is activated even by the expectation of reward. Again, we saw above that expectation plays an important role in the placebo effect.
Given the power of how we think about both physical and mental pain, our attitude to it, and our expectations in relation to it can so drastically affect how we perceive it and the degree to which we find it tolerable (e.g. we know that ‘catastrophizing mental and physical pain makes increases its perceived intensity and decreases its tolerability), treatments such as cognitive behavioral therapy and hypnotherapy are particularly well suited to reducing, or even eliminating, the pain associated with a broad range of conditions. Cognitive-behavioral therapy and hypnotherapy can be combined into a therapy known as cognitive hypnotherapy which you can read more about here.
N.B. Always consult a qualified, medical doctor about pain so that possible physical causes can be properly investigated and diagnosed.
Placebo Effect Primer Harnessing the placebo effect can powerfully mobilize your body’s natural healing defenses, and hypnosis can help engage it. Try it now…
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