The Placebo Effect and Imagination

January 16, 2008

A recent post on the NPR web site about a study concerning the placebo effect got my attention. The placebo effect is defined as “a substance having no pharmacological effect but given merely to satisfy a patient who supposes it to be a medicine.” ( In this study, as reported by NPR, a Harvard researcher, Ellen Langer, studied whether our perception of how much exercise we are getting has any effect on how our bodies actually look. She took two groups of hotel maids- who are moving and lifting constantly at work and actually exceeding the U.S. surgeon general’s recommendation for daily exercise- and told one group that the activity they performed at work constituted valid, beneficial exercise, and another group was told nothing of this. Both groups were measured according to body fat, waist-to-hip ratio, blood pressure, weight and body mass index. It was found that all of these indicators matched the maids’ perceived amount of exercise, rather than their actual amount of exercise.

One month later, Langer and her team returned to take physical measurements of the women that were coached and found that in the group that had been educated, there was a decrease in their systolic blood pressure, weight, and waist-to-hip ratio — and a 10 percent drop in blood pressure. This, even though there was no change in activity. There was found to be no significant change in the group that was given no information.

It can be argued that the information given to the test group resulted in a change of behavior but this study repeats what has been found in previous studies of placebo- that a belief in the efficacy of the placebo results in a positive outcome.

This phenomenon is very similar to the use of guided imagery, prayer, and positive visualization. Athletes use positive visualization to enhance their performance and surgery patients use
guided imagery to control blood flow and speed recovery. This is the use of the imagination as a way of knowing reality differently that an objective, rational knowing can supply.  Rational knowing assumes the immutability of separate, objective reality.  The use of the imagination as a way of knowing subjectivizes reality. Although the use of the imagination as a way of knowing is often demeaned as unreliable and insubstantial, it is clear from the placebo effect that the imagination does, indeed, affect reality.

What do you think?

One Response to “The Placebo Effect and Imagination”

  1. John Says:

    quite interesting and certainly supports the supposition that the imagination offers greater potential then perhaps we are aware …

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