Undrugs: Sugar pill may work even when you know it’s sugar pill

You’re sick? Here’s a sugar pill. We know that it can’t work. Take it anyway. You’ll feel better.

Introduced starting at 9:54. I think the interview is boring before then; he rambles.

My crush on the placebo effect started at Berkeley in Prof. Presti’s molecular neurobiology course. He introduced us to a very carefully controlled study showing that naloxone, a drug that can stop opiate overdoses, can also neutralize placebo pain. That’s a big deal. It can take pain that you started to feel only because you thought you were feeling it, and make that pain go away. The placebo effect is not just psychological, it’s chemical, and it can be influenced by chemistry. That means we can harness it.

I was so addicted to the placebo effect that I started collecting “the last week” of pills from all of my friends on birth control. I quickly amassed hundreds of sugar pills, an impressive drug collection even by Berkeley standards, even more impressive for its mystical power over the psyche. If I thought I was getting sick, I would take one so I could think I was getting better. And it really did always make me feel great, at least while telling that joke.

We don’t understand the mind, the brain, or the relationship between them. That’s true even though we have the perfect tool, drugs. Understanding consciousness will mean being able to describe mental states in chemical terms. Drugs change chemistry and cause predictable changes in mental states. They are they reason we know anything at all about the biological basis of consciousness. Of course, what we know is very little, and that it’s very complicated. The placebo effect is my favorite example: I described the effect of drugs as one-directional “drug -> brain chemistry -> mental states.” But the placebo effect seems to turn that chain on end: “sugar pill -> mental states -> chemistry.”