Placebo: Fake Inputs, Real Results

Lauryn Lax


Nutrition, CrossFit, Occupational Therapy


The concept of the mind's power over the body goes by many names. Some call it “mind over matter,” or “the power of belief.” Others call it “willpower.” Call it what you like; it’s hard to deny the power of the mind in everything, including our health.


But the mind can influence the body passively, not just actively. In the case of a placebo, for example, it’s a matter of trust and belief. It’s not active willpower, but submission and acceptance. It’s a passive approach to harnessing the power of the mind. And you can harness this power for yourself.



When Nothing Does Something

The placebo effect occurs when a person believes a certain outcome will happen and it does, even in the absence of an actual agent or source of change. The term finds its origins in medical research studies.


A placebo is the fake variable in a study that does nothing at all. They are used in studies to help determine the validity of outcomes.


For instance, one study compared the outcomes of a real knee surgery with placebo knee surgery. In the study, one group got arthroscopic surgery for osteoarthritis of the knee. The other group got incisions that made it seem as if surgery had been performed, but it had not been.


Both groups thought they were having the actual knee surgery, and both groups ended up reporting remarkably similar outcomes. Whether they had actual surgery or not seemed irrelevant.


Fool the Mind, Heal the Body

When I was elementary school, my school nurse was notorious for handing out cough drops—for everything. Sore throat? Tummy ache? Skinned knee? All got the same treatment: a cough drop. Funny thing was, no matter the child’s malady, the cough drop seemed to work. I remember it worked for me.



The placebo effect of a cough drop (preferably cherry flavored) “cured” my skinned knee. It worked like magic, making my knee feel better in a matter of minutes.


In her book, Cure: A Journey Into the Science of Mind Over Body, molecular biologist Jo Marchant illustrates that placebos are frequently shown to hold the same power an as actual drug, surgery, therapeutic, or treatment.


In particular, she discusses a study where researchers maintained positive outcomes, even while replacing patients’ real medications with placebo drugs. In addition to replacing the real drugs with fakes, researchers added external stimuli, like strong colors and music, to create an association between the placebo and the active substance.


Patients began by drinking a strong-colored placebo drink and listening to one of their favorite songs while taking the active medication. Over time, researchers gradually reduced the level of active medication while increasing the amount of placebo. The healthy outcomes continued.


What This Means for You

If it's true that you can do anything you put your mind to, it might help to give yourself a placebo.


A big part of success is all in your head. So if you can find a way to trick your brain, that 10lb PR, a podium spot at your upcoming competition, or losing 10lb of body fat becomes that much easier. It doesn't have to actually do anything. You just have to believe that it does.


Looking for more ways to reach your goals?

Make the Switch to Better Habits and Mindset

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