Doctors and medical researchers often give patients a treatment that looks like the real thing, but is in fact a “fake.” Such treatments – called “placebos” – are applied in two situations. They are used in research to “blind” patients – and often to “blind” researchers as well – so that it is not known whether a given patient is receiving medication or, say, merely a lactose tablet. This is important, if one wants to test scientifically whether a new medication (or treatment) is really effective.
But doctors and researchers also believe that giving a patient a pill can have powerful effects on disease, even when the pill contains no active substance. For half-a-century, it has been held that placebos can affect not only subjective sensations – such as when a patient receiving a lactose tablet reports a decrease in pain – but also objective outcomes, such as swelling and even myocardial infarction.
Indeed, in 1955, Henry Beecher published a famous article in the