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James Randi Educational Foundation

An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural

Introduction | "R" Reading | Curse of the Pharaoh | End-of-the-World Prophecies

Index | A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H | I | J | K | L | M | N | O | P | Q | R | S | T | U | V | W | Y | Z

placebo effect Miraculous recoveries, unexplained cessation of pain, and termination of certain medical conditions in faith healing and other such procedures is often believed to be either due to occult forces or to divine intervention. More likely, this could be due to the well-known placebo effect.
      Some recent studies indicate that in cases of neuroses and depression, almost any type of therapy is better than none at all. The word placebo is Latin and means “I shall please.” It is defined by Webster's as  

      a process or substance, of little or no known worth in itself, which is applied to a problem in order to produce an encouraging or “pleasing” result.

      This phenomenon takes place when a patient is exposed to a satisfactory “bedside manner” and/or when medication, manipulation, passing of the hands, prayer, or other means (any or all of which may be entirely ineffectual in themselves, but are seen by the recipient as unique, special, or advanced) are applied to the problem. Such effects may also take place when the patient feels in control of his situation or when he has surrendered that control to another in whom he has confidence. This is a simple case of what is known as “transference.” Encouragement leads to hope, and hope to better self-care and self-interest.
      Many types of chronic pain, because of the emotional condition of the sufferer, are associated with chronic anxiety. An efficient and caring physician, knowledgeable about the placebo effect, can largely alleviate that anxiety and thus improve at least the symptoms of certain ailments.
      Even American jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes had an opinion on this matter:  

      Healing is a living process, greatly under the influence of mental conditions. It has often been found that the same wound found received in battle will do well in the soldiers that have beaten, that would prove fatal in those that have just been defeated.

      It is well to consider the possibility of this powerful psychological effect when evaluating some claims of miraculous healing.

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