Biomedical researchers call it “the most replicated experiment in the history of science.” Simply put, the placebo effect is a phenomenon where people who believe they are being treated for a condition spontaneously improve, even when the “treatment” is a sham. Typically the placebo is an inert pill that looks real, such as a sugar pill (although placebos may include other inert substances as well). This phenomenon is so powerful that the FDA requires placebo-controlled studies of every drug that comes to market. On average, the placebo effect leads to improvement in 30% of subjects who received placebo, and that number is even higher for other conditions (e.g., 45% for depression). Indeed, federal agencies even require sham brain surgery when testing new implants for progressive, terminal diseases like Parkinson’s disease!
“There is no scientific evidence for the Law of Attraction.”
Why would a sugar pill be so effective in treating intractable human diseases? Some claim that this robust phenomenon is evidence for the “Law of Attraction,” a New Age concept that suggests that thinking about things can directly alter reality. In other words, the Law of Attraction suggests that visualizing something you want, like getting rich, will cause it to manifest in one’s life. Although the term “Law of Attraction” was coined in a book called The Secret written by Rhonda Byrne in 2006, the concept itself is found throughout ancient religion and mysticism.
There is no scientific evidence for the Law of Attraction, and it is typically considered to be pseudoscience (a concept that sounds scientific but lacks any supporting scientific evidence). The Secret may make scientific-sounding postulates, but when examined critically they are often meaningless. “Thoughts are sending out that magnetic signal that is drawing the parallel back to you,” according to Secret contributor Joe Vitale. However, Scientific American writer Michael Shermer counters that it should be common sense that magnets attract opposite poles. He points out that New Age writers can use scientific evidence out of context to rationalize their claims. The brain does produce a very weak magnetic field, but it dissipates quickly and ultimately has a negligible influence compared to other sources, such as the Earth’s magnetic field. Many other scientists have also spoken out against the appropriation of technical terms to legitimize this concept.
Despite this, the Law of Attraction empirically proves to be an effective tool for many people to use in their personal lives. Does the placebo effect provide scientific evidence for the Law of Attraction, or could a testable hypothesis based in scientific evidence explain both?
The key may lie in crosstalk between the immune system and the brain. Up until very recently, it was thought that the brain was separate from the peripheral immune system. But in 2015, scientists had to rewrite the textbooks after T cells and a lymphatic drainage system were discovered in the brain. This was a huge discovery, because inflammation plays a big role in healthy synaptic remodeling, as well as neuropsychiatric disease. This includes degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, mental illness like depression or drug addiction, developmental disabilities like autism, and many others.
“Thus, the experience of feeling helpless versus empowered could have a fundamental effect on the immune system.”
During normal development, we start out with more synaptic connections than we need, and over time, we refine the connections so that the neural circuits we develop have a crisp, clear signal. This process continues throughout life as dendrites are remodeled to retain new information. In healthy neurons, markers of inflammation direct microglia and monocytes to which parts of a cell they should eliminate, and neuronal dendrites are pruned based on this cue. When immune signaling goes haywire, this process is disrupted, leading to observable changes or impairments in cognition.
Fascinatingly, social experience can drive changes in immune signaling as well. In 2016, a series of brilliant experiments by Jenny Tung showed that when a macaque monkey’s status within a social hierarchy is artificially altered, the activity of immune cells changes with that social experience. Lower status individuals had a greater inflammatory response, which can damage tissue and increase the risk of suffering from depression. Monkeys of lower status expressed more genes associated with antibacterial defense, whereas higher status individuals expressed genes in the more efficient antiviral pathway.
Thus, the experience of feeling helpless versus empowered could have a fundamental effect on the immune system. When people use the Law of Attraction, they change their perception of their social status or future social status, which may then direct changes in immune-brain signaling. Similarly, when a patient has the social experience of receiving medical treatment, this could act on immune cells to reduce inflammation-related symptoms.
In sum, the placebo effect isn’t evidence for a mysticism-based explanation for the Law of Attraction. Rather, recent progress in the relationship between social experience and immune-brain activity may explain why we sometimes see such a powerful effect. So go ahead and give yourself that positive affirmation in the mirror this morning. The results might not be evidence for magic in the traditional sense, but the underlying physiology could you still help you achieve your goals.
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