To give a simplified example for the uninitiated: let’s say you have two picky twin cousins who drink only filtered water when clearly tap water is just as good (and often better). Both cousins are thirsty. You’re bring one twin tap water, and the other twin filtered water (because you’re an evil scientist with no regard for ethical considerations). They both think that their water is filtered. The drink it up and say thanks. Ding! Doesn’t matter if the water actually was filtered or not – as long as they think it was, it tastes just as good.
Now there are problems with this small example and it can’t be applied across the board (the difference between a brand name and generic drink might taste different, for example), but it’s a starting point.
Now when doing research with lots of people, we see the placebo effect in groups. We’re trying to figure out whether taking a new medicine is better than not taking it, for a certain group of people. For example, whether taking a new medication will help people feel better more quickly. Let’s say we convince 20 people with headaches to participate in our research experiment. Of the 20 total participants who so graciously are giving us their time, 10 people get the treatment (the new medication) and 10 people get something that looks and tastes like the treatment (the placebo). Maybe we check in with them an hour after taking their pill, and 7 out of 10 people in each group feel better. Those that got the new treatment (the new medication), we might think they feel better because of taking it, but those who got the placebo and feel better…what’s their deal? As a researcher, you might get a little diddly-ish.
It’s brain magic. And um, feeeelings.
There’s some new research showing that different personality traits may be associated with higher likelihood for experiencing the placebo effect, and that sometimes even placebo surgery can be just as good as real surgery.
It’s also a big surprise because it messes with, subverts, troubles our understanding of how things work. You have a headache, so if this pill makes headaches better, and you take the pill, your headache should go away. Real simple, right? But what if you just think the pill works, and you take what you think is the pill, and your headache goes away. Then what? Then placebo, yo. Your brain and body conspired to make your headache go away. You thought it would, and it did. Go, brain, go body, it’s your birthday. (In the sense that every day is your body’s birthday because it’s producing new cells and stuff alllll the time.)
TL;DR: The brain and the brain-body connection is all kinds of awesome. Doing something to try to improve your health may work, even if it’s not clear why that particular something works. As long as you believe in the treatment (and it’s harmless), it might be enough.