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Is Hypnosis Just the Placebo Effect?

Sometimes people who don’t really understand hypnosis or hypnotherapy will dismiss it all by saying that it’s “just the placebo effect”. Let’s examine that.

“Just the Placebo Effect”

When people use this phrase, they usually misunderstand the nature of the placebo effect itself. In medical terms, a placebo is something that does not contain any medicine, and is used these days primarily within clinical trials. When testing a new medication for approval, it will usually need to outperform a placebo.

For example, a company that wants to offer a new pill to relieve headache pain might conduct a test with a group of people who all have headaches. Some of them would be given the new pill, some would be given a sugar pill (the placebo), and some would not be given anything at all. After thirty minutes, the people would report any change in their headache. If the people who took the new pill do not experience more pain relief than the people who took the sugar pill, the medication probably would not be approved.

The key thing in this example is that some of the people who took the placebo will experience genuine pain relief. This is “the placebo effect”. In other words, an actual effect is produced by the mind even though it is not generated by an active chemical compound in the pill.

This underscores that the mind has the ability to effect changes in our body and in our experience, and in that sense it is reasonable to wonder about a connection between hypnosis and “the placebo effect”.

Enter Dr. Irving Kirsch

Irving Kirsch is one of the world’s leading researchers of the placebo effect. He has conducted extensive studies regarding both placebos and hypnosis, and has sought to identify and understand the mechanisms that drive both of them.

His work lead him to conclude that hypnosis and the placebo effect are not the same thing, although he believes they share a common mechanism, which he termed “response expectancy.” In short, he believes that what we experience is partly determined by what we expect to experience.

He has even been known to describe hypnosis as a “non-deceptive placebo”.

Understand that this research is not focused on “why these don’t work”, but rather, “how these do work”.

It’s All In Your Mind?

So, hypnosis and placebos may share a common mechanism. The important thing to remember, though, is that “the placebo effect”, like hypnosis, involves genuine, measurable, actual effects. When someone describes hypnosis as “just the placebo effect”, they probably don’t understand hypnosis or the placebo effect very well. That’s perfectly normal, because the terms get misused a lot.

Despite a great deal of progress in cognitive neuroscience, especially this century, the reality is that we are quite far from understanding or even identifying all of our mind’s abilities. We may not fully understand how the placebo effect works, or how hypnosis works, but we do know that they work, and they are worth taking seriously.

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