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Tapping the Power of Make-Believe Medicine



This Harvard professor suggests that the lowly placebo contains the key to mind—body healing.

This article appeared in our August 2004 issue. Imagine that you are a doctor. You have a patient who came into your care on the verge of death. She is now radiant with health and feels wonderful, vital and grateful. You, however, have just learned that the new drug that saved her has been found in clinical trials to have no effect. You believed in the drug you prescribed. Your patient believed in you. But now, her healing appears to be a case of the placebo effect. How do you feel? If you practice mainstream medicine, you may feel uneasy. You may associate placebos — fake drugs — with quacks. If you practice alternative medicine, you may feel threatened. The placebo effect has historically been what your critics have used to do you in. Your critics say that you deceive your patients. Whether or not your patients get better, your critics may call you a cheat. The placebo effect can be the kiss of death for an alternative medical practice. Even for mainstream doctors, it is something to be buried, not praised. And yet research using the latest brain scanning technology shows us that …

Anne Harrington is a professor of the history of Science at Harvard University and co-director of the Harvard University Mind, Brain, and Behavior Initiative.

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