Listened to two totally disparate but equally fasicinating podcasts about the placebo effect last week.
First, the placebo milkshake. From NPR:
A couple of years ago, Crum found herself considering what seems like a pretty strange question. She wanted to know whether the information conveyed by a nutritional label could physically change what happens to you — “whether these labels get under the skin literally,” she says, “and actually affect the body’s physiological processing of the nutrients that are consumed.” …
Crum created a huge batch of French vanilla milkshake, then divided it into two batches that were labeled in two very different ways.
Half the stuff was put into bottles labeled as a low-calorie drink called Sensishake — advertised as having zero percent fat, zero added sugar and only 140 calories.
The other half was put into bottles that were labeled as containing an incredibly rich treat called Indulgence. According to the label, Indulgence had all kinds of things that wouldn’t benefit your upper thighs — including enough sugar and fat to account for 620 calories. In truth, the shakes had 300 calories each.
Both before and after the people in the study drank their shakes, nurses measured their levels of a hormone called ghrelin…
If you believed you were drinking the indulgent shake, she says, your body responded as if you had consumed much more.
“The ghrelin levels dropped about three times more when people were consuming the indulgent shake (or thought they were consuming the indulgent shake),” she says, compared to the people who drank the sensible shake (or thought that’s what they were drinking).
Amazing! What people thought was in the milkshake was more potent than what their own bodies sensed in the milkshake. New diet plan? Have my wife lie to me about the ingredients in dinner to make it sound much more filling?
And, how about this, not only placebo milkshakes, but placebo sleep. (I heard this on the You are not so smart podcast, but nice summary in the Atlantic):
Methodology: Participating undergrads first reported how deeply they’d slept the night before, on a scale of one to 10. The researchers then gave the participants a quick, five-minute lesson about sleep’s effect on cognitive function, telling them it was just background information for the study. During the lesson, they said that adults normally spend between 20 and 25 percent of their sleep time in REM sleep, and that getting less REM sleep than that tends to cause lower performance on learning tests. They also said that those who spend more than 25 percent of their sleep time in REM sleep usually perform better on such tests.
Then participants were hooked up to equipment that they were told would read their pulse, heartrate, and brainwave frequency, though it actually just measured their brainwave frequency. They were told that these measurements would allow the researchers to tell how much REM sleep they’d gotten the night before. This was not true.
Then one of the experimenters pretended to calculate that each participant got either 16.2 percent REM sleep or 28.7 percent REM sleep the previous evening. After getting their reading, participants took a test that measures “auditory attention and speed of processing, skills most affected by sleep deprivation,” according to the study…
Results: Participants who were told they had above-average REM sleep performed better on the test, and those who were told their REM sleep was below average performed worse, even when researchers controlled for the subjects’ self-reported sleep quality.
Implications: A great victory was won here for lies, over truth. This study shows that if you’re in the mindset that you’re well-rested, your brain will perform better, regardless of the actual quality of your sleep.
Amazing again. Hey, you there, reading this. You slept great last night! Actually, I think the negative part of this is the worst. New parents know they have bad sleep all the time. And this suggests that simply knowing you had bad sleep is going to hurt your cognitive performance. Presumably, to some degree, on top of the fact that having bad sleep actually affects your cognitive performance. Would love to see a study on that.
Short version of all this. Get people to lie to you in ways that positively affect you.