Does a placebo work if you know it’s a placebo?

placebo boxThe answer to that question is Yes!

That’s according to new research led by Ted Kaptchuk, from the Program for Placebo Studies at Beth Israel Medical Center in Boston.

It involved 97 patients who had chronic back pain. First, they were given a 15-minute explanation of the placebo effect and how it worked. Then they were randomised into two groups.

One group were asked to continue with their ‘treatment as usual’ while the other group were given a bottle labelled “Placebo Pills” and were instructed to take 2-a-day as well as their usual treatment.

Conventional logic would tell you that the placebos shouldn’t work. “Surely a placebo only works if you don’t know you’re getting it. That’s the whole point. It’s blind faith,” said someone at one of my talks on the mind-body connection. Here they were being told they would be taking placebos so there’s no blind faith. Yet the placebos worked, and not just a little bit.

Those who knowingly took their placebos reported significant reductions in maximum pain, minimum pain, and even their usual pain – 3 different assessments of pain severity that doctors use. They even reported a substantial drop in pain-related disability.

This is not to say that pain is a figment of the imagination. That is not true at all. Try saying that to someone who suffers from chronic pain. What actually happens is that the mind can produce its own natural pain killers and it is these natural ones that are responsible for the drop in pain.

This result is similar to a study of 80 IBS sufferers conducted by the same researchers. They were also given placebos but the key, again, was what they were told. They were told that the pills were:

“… made of an inert substance, like sugar pills, that have been shown in clinical studies to produce significant improvement in IBS symptoms through mind-body self-healing processes.”

Result? The placebos worked. After taking their placebos, they rated their symptoms as moderately improved compared with people who didn’t receive any placebos, who reported only a slight change.

How? In both these studies, the key was knowing that there is such a thing as a mind-body connection, that the mind exerts real, physical, measureable, effects on the brain and throughout the body.

The mind-body connection is obvious when you think about it. What happens to males when they imagine a sexual fantasy? It can be quite obvious, if you know what I mean. The mind actually produces a substance called nitric oxide in certain blood vessels, which causes an increase in blood flow there. In fact, Viagra works by stimulating an enzyme to make nitric oxide.

To offer a different example, when you think of something that worries or stresses you, you increase adrenalin in your body. Again, your mind alters your biology.

Ultimately, it was through the mind-body connection that the above studies worked. Once the patients had an explanation of how the placebo effect works – that the mind does affect the body – it planted the knowledge in their minds that their thinking and what they believe would impact their biology. Then the act of taking the placebo triggered the expectation that it could or would help.

Add to that the habitual action of taking a pill and popping it in your mouth, which activates the subconscious, conditioned, expectation of a result, and there you have it. A placebo can work even if you know it’s a placebo!


Check out my upcoming ‘Mind & Emotions Boost Event

How a child with Chickenpox stopped itching

teddy bearAs you know, I’m a big fan of visualisation.

As I’ve explained before, in many ways the brain doesn’t distinguish real from imaginary. As we imagine something, to the brain, what we imagine is actually happening.

In previous blogs I’ve shared scientific evidence of how people have altered physical strength through visualisation, how visualisation can help weight loss, lots on the power of placebos, as well as how visualisation is used to help people heal from illness.

During a workshop I taught last weekend on this subject, a woman shared an amazing technique that her little 3-year-old daughter used to avoid scratching her face when she had chickenpox. It is such an amazing strategy that I just had to share it with you.

Her child’s face was so itchy, the woman told me. Having learned about visualisation from my book, ‘How Your Mind Can Heal Your Body’, she explained, she was suddenly struck with an idea.

She asked her daughter to go find a teddy bear whose face tickled as much as hers. When the little girl returned with a teddy, her mother told her that she should scratch teddy every time her face became itchy and that it would help stop her own itch.

And that’s exactly what she did.

Amazingly, the itch faded on her own face and she didn’t scratch her face once.

It reminds me of how mirror boxes can be used to help people who have lost a limb to deal with phantom limb pain and itches. Say the person had lost their right arm. A mirror box can be placed on the table and the person would lay their left hand down. The mirror then shows a reflection that looks like the person has both a left and right arm.

And that’s what the brain processes. The mirror box tricks the brain into acting as if the person does have a right arm, enabling them to then scratch it. In other words, scratching the left hand, now reflected in the mirror as a right hand, can relieve a phantom itch in the right.

These kinds of techniques work because when you focus on any area of the body, the corresponding region of the brain is activated. Focus on a finger, for example, and the finger region of the brain is activated.

It’s likely, given the teddy-chickenpox example, that even a representation of a body part can have the same effect. In other words, something that we decide represents a part of the body might activate the brain in the same way.

This is how what I call ‘symbolic visualisations’ work. A gentleman who had suffered terrible depression once shared his symbolic visualisation with me. He said he felt broken, so he symbolised his broken feeling as broken shards of a mirror.

In his mind’s eye, he then gathered up the shards, heated them in a cauldron to melt them, and then poured them into a new mould. In effect, he took his brokenness and made himself whole again.

A month or so of daily visualisation like this was a huge tonic for him and brought him out of depression.

He represented the mirror as his feelings, just as the little girl represented the teddy’s face as her own face.

How to use visualisation to boost your self-love

happy-and-confident_smallLots of people use visualisation. The most popular way is to visualise what you want. Some people picture their ideal house, their ideal car, or a perfect partner who ticks all the boxes, for instance.

The idea with this kind of visualisation is to picture what you want, the end result. It’s also useful to picture yourself in the visualisation; living in the house, driving the car, or with the perfect partner.

There’s a different kind of visualisation you can do for self-love, though. It’s centred on the fact that your muscles are in constant communication with your brain.

Why is that important?

Before I get into that, I’d first like to say what I mean by self-love. You can think ‘self-esteem’ instead of self-love if you prefer that term. The main reason I use the term self-love rather than self-esteem is that many people get their self-esteem from external sources, from their seeming successes in life and from other people’s positive opinions of them. But it’s not a stable self-esteem because failure, or a change in people’s opinions, give it a serious shake.

I think of self-love, on the other hand, as an inner sense of worthiness and value. It’s more of an inner self-esteem. It’s mostly independent of successes, achievements and external perceptions of you. It is stable, because if seeming failure occurs or opinions seem to change, the inner perception of yourself is untouched.

OK, so let’s get back to why it’s important that your muscles are in constant communication with your brain.

When you’re lacking in self-love, it comes across in your body language and in your facial expressions. Not all the time, of course, but especially when you’re challenged. This happens because your muscles are connected to your brain. It’s the same reason that your muscles and face tense when you feel stressed, or that your body feels light and floppy when you’re in love, and that you smile when you’re happy. In real ways, you wear your feelings on your body.

But it goes the other way too. Just as your body responds to how you feel, you can use your body to create how you want to feel. Making adjustment to how you sit, stand, how you move, and to your facial muscles, quickly impacts your feelings. A consistent practice of adjusting how you hold and move your body, so that it says, “I love myself,” or “I am enough,” or something else along those lines, can impact your self-love by literally creating the wiring of self-love in the brain.

More than this, though, is that your brain doesn’t distinguish real from imaginary. When you imagine moving your muscles, your brain processes it as if you actually are moving your muscles. Elite athletes and rehabilitation specialists use this fact all the time.

When you imagine holding and moving your body in way that says you have self-love, your brain processes it as if you do have self-love. The key difference between this and ‘classical’ visualisation (of the sort I mentioned at the beginning of this blog), is that you don’t put all your focus on an end result. Instead, you visualise the posture and movement of your body.

As you do this consistently, your brain wires in the habit of holding and moving your body in that way. As this happens, you start to feel the feelings that go with this new body posture and these new ways of moving. With enough consistent practice, the feelings of “I love myself,” or “I am enough,” or something along these lines, becomes habit too.

So to get started, simply notice right now how you’re holding your body. Is your body tense or relaxed? Is your spine straight or slumped? How about your facial muscles? Are you smiling or frowning? Is your brow relaxed or furrowed? Then make some shifts.

Do this as often as you can remember to.

Watch what happens!


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How to deflect negative emotion

faces of different women's emotionsHave you ever felt totally drained after spending time with certain people, whether at work or even in your personal life?

I think we’ve all had those times… when we feel we’re literally soaking up the negative emotions of certain people around us.

It’s called Emotional Contagion. Just as you can catch a cold by hanging out with someone who has one, so you can actually catch emotion too.

In the brain, we have an interconnected network of cells known as the Mirror Neuron System (MNS for short). It causes us to mirror the facial expressions, body movements, and gestures of others as they express their emotions. In the presence of someone expressing negative emotion, then, your MNS mirrors the movements of their facial muscles that are conveying those emotions.

The trouble is, your MNS stimulates your facial muscles in the same way as theirs (thus, ‘Mirror’), hence you frown when they frown, tense when they tense, even without realising it. This also causes you to mirror much of their emotional brain chemistry too (see graphic at end of blog). As a result, even though you tend not to notice, your facial muscles move like theirs and you swiftly begin to feel how they feel.

But herein lies the secret to deflecting unwanted emotion. The primary gateway for catching emotion is the face. That’s because we’ve evolved over hundreds of millions of years to look at a person’s face to understand them. So the key to deflecting negative emotion is to prevent the mirroring from taking place.

The trick is to interrupt the natural process of unconscious mirroring. It’s a simple 3-step process. Here’s what to do:

Step 1: Awareness.

The key is to simply notice that you’re catching negative emotion through emotional contagion. Only with awareness of what’s happening can you stop it.

Step 2: Move your facial muscles differently.

The MNS causes you to mirror their facial muscle movements, so simply do something else with your face. It helps to actually stretch your facial muscles, but of course that’s not always an option, especially if you’re at a meeting at work. But simply massaging the corrugator supercilli muscle (the one between your eyes) helps, as well as the orbicularis oculi (the one at the side of your eyes). Stretching your mouth wide open helps too. It’s all about interrupting the flow of negative emotional data from the facial muscles to the brain and sending different data to the brain instead.

Step 3: Adjust your posture.

Sit or stand up straight, straighten your back, and breathe comfortably from your diaphragm. This lets your brain know that you’re confident and in control. Your brain will adjust your biology to reflect this.

Step 4: Patience.

So long as you’re doing this, negative emotion will gradually be replaced with positive emotion. It can take a few minutes sometimes so just keep your attention on your face, your posture, and your breathing in the meantime.

Of course, we don’t just catch ‘t negative emotion. Emotional contagion works with positive emotion in the exact same way. It’s why you tend to feel good around people who are happy.

The graphic below, in fact, shows how emotional contagion works for catching happiness.

Oh, and just before I finish this blog, you don’t just catch emotion from others, you transmit emotion too. Other people catch what you’re feeling. So if you want to help some others to be happier, one of the best ways is therefore to work on your own happiness.

Then they will catch it from you. 🙂

How to slow ageing

happy elderly ladies playing with a ball

My friend Skip told me recently that he met a 98-year-old man in Bali who challenged him to a race to climb a tree. Skip is a very physically healthy and fit person – an ex-British champion gymnast – yet the 98-year-old nearly matched him.

I spent 6 months of last year nearly full-time renovating our new home. I clearly remember my first building job. My Dad and I had to remove the floorboards in one room, then get rid of all the large rocks underneath (typical in a very old cottage), so that a new floor could be laid.

Lifting the floorboards and removing the joists wasn’t so hard. We did that in less than an hour. It was lifting the heavy rocks for disposal that was the hard bit. When I woke up the following morning, I could barely get out of bed. Muscles I didn’t even know existed were hurting. Walking to the shower, and then downstairs for breakfast, was painful.

I phoned my Dad to see how he was, worried. He is 73-years-old, after all.

“Fine, Son!” was his reply when I phoned him, in an astonishingly (to me) upbeat voice.

He didn’t hurt at all. How could that be? I’m in my mid-forties and no stranger to exercise. I regularly work out. Dad was completely fine. I felt … wrecked … I think that was the word I used that morning.

These kinds of examples of older people demonstrating physical fitness that we only expect in people much younger remind me of how much attitude plays a role in ageing.

For a start, there is no standard rate of ageing. Yes, we have biology. Yes, we have genetics that predispose the human body to an approximate lifespan. But how that biology and those genetics work has a lot to do with attitude.

Back in the 80s, Harvard professor, Ellen Langer, ran a study of a group of senior citizens, some of whom were struggling with arthritis, who were asked to pretend they were 20 years younger. They arrived at the residential centre, where they would live for the next week, and immediately felt transported back in time. Langer ensured that the house was decorated like the 1950s, that daily newspapers each day were from 1959, that the radio played ‘live’ from 1959. Even the TV ran 1959 shows.

They were also asked to converse with each other like it was 20 years ago, discussing their family as if they were all younger. In other words, they were to completely immerse themselves in the mindset that they were 20 years younger. Importantly, they were also encouraged to do things for themselves – carry their own bags, walk up the stairs, etc, without Langer’s team treating them like they weren’t capable.

Astonishingly, when their physiological readings before and after beginning the study were taken – physical strength, eyesight, hearing, gait, manual dexterity, taste sensitivity, memory, mental cognition – they had grown younger. Interestingly, four independent volunteers were asked to look at ‘Before’ and ‘After’ photographs and stated that they believed the ‘After’ photos were two years younger.

In her book, ‘Counterclockwise’, Langer wrote that on the last day at the centre, men, “who had seemed so frail… ended up playing an impromptu touch football game on the front lawn.” 1 week!! This was after just 1 week of holding a younger attitude.

We have two ages. There’s our chronological age, which is the number of years we’ve lived, which of course only goes in one direction. Then we have our physiological age, which is the age of the body, and that depends to a large extent on diet, exercise … and attitude. It can go backwards.

The food we eat, the exercise we take, our attitude to life, ageing, other people, all make a difference to our physiological age. A poor diet, lifestyle and attitude generally takes its toll on the body, prematurely ageing it. A healthy set, on the other hand, keeps the body younger.

One study of 999 Dutch people aged between 65 and 85 quizzed them on their attitudes to ageing. They were asked whether they agreed or disagreed to statements of the sort, “I often feel that life is full of promises,” “I still have positive expectations about my future,” “There are many moments of happiness in my life.” Those whose responses showed them to have higher levels of optimism had a 77% lower risk of death from heart disease and 45% lower risk of death from any cause.

A similar study, conducted at Yale University, asked 660 people for their responses to questions like, “As you get older, you are less useful. Agree or Disagree?’ Those whose responses showed the most positive attitude to ageing lived an average of seven and a half years longer than those with the least positive attitude.

The study also concluded that attitude was more influential than blood pressure, cholesterol levels, smoking, body weight and even exercise levels in how long a person lived.

Attitudes to other people and social contact make a big difference too. People with a poor attitude to others typically don’t make friends as well and neither do they have a broad social network. People who tend to be aggressive, hostile, or even bullies towards others are more prone to cardiovascular disease. People who are more understanding of others, are kind and compassionate, on the other hands, tend to make friends more easily and tend to have better quality relationships. They also tend to have more social contact.

And social contact is highly important. It turns out that social contact is one of the most important factors, in fact, in living to 100. Social contact, as well as helping keep stress down by providing friendships where we can discuss our worries and challenges, also helps produce oxytocin, which is a hormone that helps maintain the health of the cardiovascular system.

The bottom line in research of all of the above types is that attitude affects ageing and it does it by affecting, not just our minds, but our biology and physiology.

One of the key attitudes to adopt is to actually act younger. It’s easy to surrender to what we think we should be doing, or be able to do, given our age. But outside of a bit of common sense regarding our physical state, most people are capable of more than they believe they should be.

A person who is 80 and who believes that the body is mostly worn out at 80, that no improvement is possible in their physical condition regardless of what they do, that their memory, eyesight, physical strength, etc, are set for decline, will live according to this belief, and it will influence what they actually do, how much they move, how they speak, and how their body responds to life.

Let’s say another person has grown up with the belief that humans live until they are 150 years old and that 80 is ‘middle age’. Such a person would likely find that their attitude and the lifestyle, exercise and movement they adopt, would lead to improvements in their physical condition.

Attitude counts! The same holds true when we’re 30, 40, 50, 60, 70… I think you get my drift. If we have a negative preconceived idea of limitations of age, then we tend to live according to these limitations, whatever age we currently are, and don’t stretch our minds and bodies in the way that they are able to be stretched. As such, we age according to our mindset.

Enough said! I’m off to play on the swings. 🙂

The power of a hug

hug illustrationA hug is wonderful when you feel sad, stressed, tired and even when you feel good.

I love what the Free Hugs people do when they stand in a city centre holding a ‘Free Hugs’ sign. Their hugs produce human connection, vulnerability, smiles, laughter, positive emotion, and even sometimes tears, especially if it’s the first hug a person who has been suffering has experienced in a long while.

Hugs are also good for the heart. They increase our levels of the hormone ‘oxytocin’, which as well as being known for its role in trust, childbirth, and breastfeeding, is also a powerful ‘cardioprotective’ hormone. This basically means it helps protect the cardiovascular system.

From what? You might ask. From the negative side-effects of poor dietary and lifestyle choices and also from mental and emotional stress.

Oxytocin works by producing nitric oxide in our arteries, which then widens (dilates) our arteries. Nitric oxide helps our arteries stay flexible and also helps reduce blood pressure.

So, ultimately, hugs are cardioprotective too. And I’d say so for more than simply their oxytocin-and-therefore-nitric-oxide-inducing power, but because they make us feel relaxed, cared for, even loved. Hugs are medicine for the soul.

I remember crying in front of my mum and dad when I found out our beloved dog, Oscar, had osteosarcoma and was unlikely to live beyond a few months. Mum hugged me and I melted, collapsed in her arms. I felt like a child again, being loved by and tended to by my mum.

I think we have that memory of being tended to by our parents as children, where we were upset or in pain and we knew that ‘everything is going to be OK’, ‘the pain will go soon’, or ‘it’s OK, Mum (or Dad) will fix it’. It’s a memory held deep in the unconscious but whose emotions are released in our adult lives when we receive a hug.

So hugs are medicine for the heart and they are medicine for the soul. If we could bottle hugs, we would take our daily dose without question.

Here’s the thing, you can have a daily dose. You don’t need to wait to be hugged. You can hug others.

As a typical Scottish male (OK, I’m not really able to speak for my entire nation but I’ll make a generalisation based on my 45-year-old observations), hugging didn’t come naturally to me. To be honest, I felt like a sissy if someone hugged me. I’d do the whole, awkward, chest-held-back-not sure-about-touching thing, followed by a little pat on the back, secretly hoping that the hug would end soon.

But I learned to enjoy hugs. I think it happened when I was in my late 20’s and Mum (again to the rescue) looked after me for a week while I suffered a bout of depression. It was the first time in my adult life I opened up to someone. I think something shifted in me then, a willingness to open up to others that I’d not showed before. I then became an initiator of hugs.

Even in the bar on a Thursday night after work (that was our standard weekly visit), I’d say goodbye to my friends at the end of the night with a hug. At first, some of them were a little awkward but soon got the hang of it too. It came natural to some others. But within a month or two, a hug was the standard goodbye for us after a few drinks in the bar.

So I’d add that hugs are also contagious. As we hug others, we share a connection. It opens us a little. It feels good. And that makes it contagious.

So given the medicine that hugs carry, that they are free, and contagious (in a good way), it might be a good idea to see if you can add a few more hugs to your day.

You’d be doing yourself a favour, but each time you hug you also deliver a gentle dose of medicine to the heart and soul of another person too.

And that is the power of a hug.

The art of self-correction

daisies growingSeveral years ago, I spent time as an athletics coach, coaching young people in the long jump and triple jump. It was one of these things that just kind of happened.

I had no previous coaching experience, and certainly wasn’t a technical expert in the logistics of jumping, but the existing coach was moving on and asked if I’d take over. I’d been training in the long jump myself but mostly got by on raw speed. So without a great deal of know-how, I decided to do it my way.

During each training session I led the athletes through basic routines – things I’d done myself. But throughout each training session, my strategy was mostly about lifting the spirits of each athlete in the squad by saying positive things that helped them feel good about themselves. I’d noticed that my chemistry teacher at school did that with me.

He always made me feel good about myself, pointing out how well I was doing, that I had potential, expressing joy when I’d got an answer correct. As a result, I loved being in the chemistry class, excelled in it, went on to university and finished up with a PhD in the subject. I wondered if the athletes would excel in their own ways if I did for them what my chemistry teacher did for me.

It seemed to work. The athletes made great improvements. So much so, in fact, that every single one of them became medallists in their age groups at the year-end national club finals.

The athletes would often notice by themselves where they could improve in the technical aspects of the event. That’s what happens when you’re enjoying something. They also learned by observing each other. Then they made many of their own adjustments accordingly. By coming from inside themselves rather than just from my instruction, they seemed to take more responsibility for their training and more pride in the event. Success, for them, was an inside job.

I call this kind of thing, where we make adjustments by ourselves, ‘Self-Correction’. It’s where we identify where we can improve and make corrections when necessary. It’s an aspect of self-awareness, but where we then act on what we become aware of.

We can apply it to all manner of things. If you’re learning mindfulness, for example, because you need to manage your stress levels, you can self-correct simply by noticing when you’re not feeling calm and doing something about it.

I apply it to personal growth work. I used it extensively when I was working on my self-love (self-esteem) project. Regular awareness of how I was feeling and how I was acting in particular environments helped me a lot to make useful adjustments.

It seems like a no brainer, pretty obvious stuff. And it is, but you’d be surprised at how little we actually do what we know. That’s why I shared my story of athletics coaching. As simple as it sounds, just knowing that you can make big improvements through self-correction helps enormously. If you’re trying to reduce stress, for example, knowing that self-correction can help will actually cause you to notice times when you need to relax.

A simple awareness of the power of self-correction generates a feeling of hope. And that hope shifts the centre of gravity away from seeking solutions in other places, and into yourself.

And that makes all the difference.

Find yourself vs reveal yourself

homeless - travellerIt can be hard to be yourself. In fact, what does it actually mean?

It can mean a lot of things to different people. We sometimes think we need to ‘find’ ourselves in order to ‘be’ ourselves. But finding yourself can actually feel stressful to some people because it conjures up the idea of a long and challenging journey, one beset with obstacles along the way to test your mettle and commitment to the journey.

One of the things I’ve discovered is that an important part of being ourselves is actually a lot about removing the masks of who you are not; like stopping pretending that you are always positive or happy, or that you always have the answers, that you have everything figured out, or letting go of the pretence that you don’t get scared even, or that people’s comments don’t hurt you … etc … and there are many more.

We pretend because we want to be liked, accepted, to belong. We are prone to hide our ‘wobbly bits’ from others because we want to present our best side to the world. We want the world to see us as what we consider to be our most desirable, most talented, most intelligent, strongest, wisest, funniest, (etc, etc) self.

This is because, deep in the human psyche, not being liked by others feels like a threat to our very survival. You see, millions of years of evolution have ingrained in the human psyche (and biology) the need to form connections with others because these connections are what created community that ultimately helped our species thrive. The need for connection has become as much part of our biology and psychology as has the need for air to breathe.

It’s why connection stimulates the production of growth hormones and oxytocin, both which play key roles in the growth and repair of the human body. An infant deprived of connection grows at a slower rate than an infant shown an abundance of connection, mostly due to lower levels of growth hormones and oxytocin.

It’s also why a lack of connection is associated with depression in adults as well as a weaker immune system and poorer function of the cardiovascular system.

In centuries past, one of the worst punishments was banishment, where a person could never again return to their community. It was not uncommon for those banished to make multiple (and eventually fatal) attempts to get back into the village or town again. They simply could not live without connection.

In the modern world, the need for connection creates, for many, an inbuilt, unconscious desire to please people, to need them to like us, because we believe that being liked will help us bond and form connections. That’s why we try to show our best bits and hide our seeming weaknesses. We fear that if we show our weaknesses, vulnerabilities, insecurities, that people won’t like us and thus we won’t be able to form connections. Of course, this is mostly going on unconsciously.

But we have it a bit back to front. In holding back our real selves, in only showing up as part of ourselves (the shiny bits and not the wobbly bits), we don’t really form the quality of connections our biology and psyches need. We erect artificial barriers, built upon the fear of people seeing our seeming shortcomings, barriers that actually block authentic connection.

On the other hand, having the courage to show our wobbly bits – our vulnerabilities, our insecurities, our seeming weaknesses – actually makes authentic connection more likely. It helps us forge deeper connections because we let go of pretences.

We give up the idea of being who we are not. We knock down these internal barriers. We show up as we are. We move away from wanting specific people to like us, give us approval, love us, even, and move towards knowing that if people don’t like us as we are then they will simply drift out of our lives, making space for people who like, approve, love us for who we are. In effect, we become more comfortable in our own skin.

So perhaps, rather than try to find yourself, have a go at ditching who you are not. And as you let go of these false ideas of yourself, who knows … you might just find the person you were looking for.

Is expensive Nurofen better than cheap Ibuprofen?

happy peopleNow, not being a marketing person I’m really not in favour of creating different versions of the same thing and charging more for them. But given the recent news headlines, the question many people have is, ‘Is Nurofen better than Ibuprofen?’… even though they are the same thing.

I know people who swear that Ibuprofen simply isn’t strong enough for them and that they find that only Nurofen works for them. They use a similar argument for Panadol vs Paracetomol, preferring to pay several times more for the branded Paracetamol.

However, an interesting thing happens when you do pay more for the same thing. In the 1980s, a study was performed where over 800 women were given one of two versions of the same aspirin for headache pain.

One group of women received an expensive looking version in quality packaging labelled as ‘Aspirin’, and another group received a cheap looking version in plain packaging labelled as ‘Analgesic’. However they were both the exact same aspirin, merely in different packaging and with a different name.

The other two groups of women received placebos but one groups’ placebos were expensively packaged and labelled ‘Aspirin’ and the other groups’ were in plain aspirin packaging and labelled ‘Analgesic’.

Now, you’d expect both versions of aspirin to work the same, given that they are both aspirin, and both placebos to work the same, given that they are, well, sugar. But that’s not what the study found.

The expensively packaged aspirin worked better than the cheaper looking version, even though they were the exact same drug. And interestingly, the expensive looking placebo also worked better than the cheap looking placebo. And funnily enough, the expensive looking placebo was nearly as good as the cheap looking aspirin. So what’s going on?

Basically, we associate price with quality so when we pay more for something, we expect it to work better. And it turns out that what we expect or believe actually changes what happens in the brain.

It’s not psychosomatic! It’s not ‘all in the mind’! Research into the placebo effect shows us that belief changes brain chemistry. Believing that something is going to relieve pain actually causes your brain to make it’s own versions of morphine (known as endogenous opiates).

And our beliefs about how the medicine is administered matter too. In the US, an injection of a placebo for pain works about 50% better than a placebo tablet even though they are both placebos. In the UK, it’s reversed. A placebo tablet for pain works a little better (about 10%) than a placebo injection. Why the difference? Surely if they are all placebos they should work exactly the same. Again, the difference is down to what we believe.

In the US, people talk about ‘getting a shot’ and so people in the US generally believe that injections are better for pain than tablets are. On the other hand, people in the UK talk about ‘popping pills’ and so UK people tend to believe in tablets for pain. It comes down to cultural language and that language reflects what we believe.

The bottom line is that things are never ‘all in the mind’. Our beliefs change our brain chemistry (and also what’s going on all throughout the body) and that change can often produce healing effects.

Interesting though this is, and also an untapped resource in terms of our capacity to affect our own health if we learn some mental techniques, the issue that bothers people is that the relatively high pricing of branded medicine seems to be all about profit.

I can’t say for sure that pharmaceutical companies aren’t aware of how to boost the placebo effect and that they price things higher to tap into it. I left the industry in 1999 so I’m not on the ball with their knowledge base. I spent four years in drug development after my PhD in organic chemistry. Given the time since I left I really can’t comment on their motivations.

Certainly, my colleagues back then were definitely not knowledgeable about how the placebo effect works and the general opinion was that it was simply a nuisance that got in the way of achieving a true measure of how well a new drug was working in a clinical trial.

But in the words of Fabrizio Benedetti, professor of physiology and neuroscience at the University of Turin School of Medicine and world authority on the placebo effect, in a paper published in the journal Annual Review of Pharmacology and Toxicology, he wrote:

The placebo effect has evolved from being thought of as a nuisance in clinical pharmacological research to a biological phenomenon worthy of scientific investigation in its own right.”

I would say that there is definitely more to the mind than most people think. The human mind really is a relatively untapped resource in its ability to bring about changes in the brain and body. The challenge for us, really, is learning how to tap into this phenomenon and learning how to direct and control it.

That’s my motivation for studying and writing about the mind-body connection.


Further reading: For many studies on the mind-body connection and other mind-body phenomena, including meditation, neuroplasticity, and visualisation strategies for harnessing the mind-body connection, see my book: ‘How Your Mind Can Heal Your Body’.

Mind Over Matter

mirror neuronsI’ve written a lot over the years on the subject of the mind-body connection. The origin of my interest actually goes back to when I was 11 years old and I was in the school library. A book fell of the shelf beside me. It was ‘The Magic Power of Your Mind’ by Walter Germaine.

At the time my mum was suffering from depression, which had begun a few years earlier as post natal (post partum) depression. I had an instinct that the book would help my mum so I took it home.

It really helped her. It didn’t cure her in a day or anything like that, but it taught her insights and strategies and gave her hope that she could chart a course through some of the difficult times. As a teenager, I often heard my mum say things like, “I can do it,” while pumping her fist, “It’s all in the mind,” “It’s mind over matter,” and “It’s the Thought that Counts,” which incidentally became the title of my first book. These were examples of my mum’s positive self-talk that she’d learned. Today we think of these as affirmations.

Growing up, a fascination with the subject and possibilities of mind over matter gradually developed in me. Later, after I completed my PhD in organic chemistry, I took a job in the pharmaceutical industry. It was there that my interest and understanding of the mind-body connection went up a notch. My job exposed me to the whole area of drug development where I learned a bit about the placebo effect. I quickly became more interested in the placebo effect and the whole mind-body connection than in developing drugs and often spent hours of my spare time pondering and reading up on the subject.

I left the industry after 4 years to write and speak full-time. Now, 8 books later, my interest hasn’t dropped a bit but in fact has grown considerably.

When I left the pharmaceutical industry in 1999, mind-body science was in its infancy, really. Now, there is a wealth of research showing beyond all doubt that your thoughts, beliefs and emotions cause physiological, biological, and even genetic changes all throughout your body. And when I say genetic changes, I’m not meaning that we change our genes or anything like that, but that our thinking changes the pattern of ‘on’ and ‘off’ of our genes. A gene might get switched on or off, for instance, as a consequence of what you’re focusing on.

Thinking of someone or something that causes you stress, for example, switches on stress genes, the consequences of which can lead to constriction of the arteries. Thinking of someone you love, on the other hand, activates completely different genes, the consequences of which can actually dilate your arteries.

Believing a drug will help you can cause it to work better. Believing it won’t help you often negates some (or all) of its potential effect. Paying more for a simple painkiller makes it work better than a cheaper version because of your belief that more expensive equates to better.

Imagining eating can reduce appetite by signaling the brain that you’re full, imagining moving your muscles repetitively actually causes structural changes in the circuits of the brain, making those muscles stronger. Paying attention to your breathing also causes structural changes in the brain in such a way that makes it easier to find peace amid chaos.

Imagining happy things alters brain chemistry that can make you feel better. Imagining things you’re afraid of activates fear centers of the brain.

Imagining moving your arm convinces your brain that you’re actually moving it, an insight from neuroscience that has reaped benefits for thousands of stroke patients, and athletes.

A pilot can even fly a plane with his mind if the navigational controls are interfaced with a device that reads his brain activation.

There is no doubt whatsoever that your mind affects your body. The skill in making it work for you, really, is learning to control what you focus on.

And that really comes down to training, in much the same way that you learn any skill through training.

So I thought I’d give you a little insight into the mind-body connection today, enough perhaps to give you some faith in yourself, that you really do have the capacity to bring about positive changes in your health by adjusting your focus.