Pacific Standard (www.psmag.com) is doing a week-long special report on the placebo effect with the aim of "...telling stories of the mysterious mind-body connection and how a simple thought can become reality." The first article in the series discusses how expectations about getting drunk (the sight of red solo cups, doing a keg stand on a keg filled with non-alcoholic beer) are enough to make people feel as if they are drunk. The article even references a rather good Freaks & Geeks episode (see below). The author mostly focuses on placebo effects caused by conditioning, referencing the "needle freak phenomenon" and warning newly recovered alcoholics from drinking non-alchoholic beers. "What’s causing the experience could be the substance or your expectation of the substance’s effect, but regardless, the reaction is objectively real—there are observable physiological changes that scientists can and have tracked. Indeed, studies have logged changes in brain activity in patients unknowingly taking placebos that mirrored the effect of the actual drug."
Another article about the placebo effect was also published in the NYTimes today. This article, by Arthur Frakt, discusses how important placebo effects are for medical care. He points out that it is important to remember that "the placebo is not the same thing as the absence of treatment." The placebo is important, as the article points out, because pain relief and medical cures act through two pathways: the body and the brain. "... When we believe we are receiving helpful care, we get better. Moreover, we do so more quickly and at a higher rate than if we receive no care at all." In other words, placebos aren't doing nothing. I especially like the author's point that decreasing vulnerability and increasing feelings of being cared for can go a long way in relieving pain: "The lesson of placebos is simple: The mind-body connection is strong. A lot of good can come from caring and feeling cared for." Perhaps this is a good general lesson too - just caring for someone else, empathizing with them, and making them feel less vulnerable can take away some of the pain they feel (physical or emotional).