The visual appeal of placebos: What we see influences what we believe

Being aware of how we think as well as watching what we think can make a huge difference in our health and general well being. Photo: © iStockphoto.com/FotografiaBasica

LOS ALTOS, CA, August 24, 2013 – The best way to identify a winning musical performance has little, if anything, to do with what we hear.

In fact, were Van Cliburn or Vladimir Horowitz to enter a piano playing contest today, it is likely they would win – not because of their virtuosity, but because of their ability to impress visually.


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How’s that?

According to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, even though people generally assume you need to hear what a musician is playing in order to evaluate them properly, we may actually rely more on visual prompts.

In this study, both amateur and professional musicians were shown clips from classical music competitions. Some listened to audio recordings, some video recordings with audio, and some video without sound.

“What was surprising was that even though most people will say sound matters the most, it turned out that it was only in the silent videos, the videos without any sound, that participants were able to identify the actual winners,” said the report’s author, Chia-Jung Tsay, during a recent NPR interview. Even more puzzling is that when the study’s participants were able to both see and hear the competitors, they weren’t as good at picking the winners, suggesting that the music was actually a distraction.


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On a somewhat related note, we also know that the effectiveness of drugs often has little, if anything, to do with the drug itself and a lot more with certain visual cues. For instance, when someone is given a placebo – that is, a pill with no known therapeutic value – the effect is greater when the pill itself is bigger, or if they are given two pills instead of one or two pills once a day instead of one twice a day.

But that’s not the half of it.

Most of the time a capsule will work better than a pill, and a syringe works better than a capsule; a plain pill is less effective than a branded one; a discounted pill isn’t as effective as a pricey one; a pill in a plain package isn’t as good as one in a shiny package, and placebos that are blue usually work best as downers while those that are red are better as uppers.

Are you beginning to see a pattern? Whether you are dealing with music or medication, it’s pretty obvious that what we believe can have a significant impact on what we experience, both emotionally and physically. Although this phenomenon applies to countless situations, perhaps the most meaningful is how it relates to our health.


SEE RELATED: Is prayer a viable alternative to conventional medicine for health?


How often do we receive visual prompts from newspaper, magazine, TV, and Internet ads telling us that this or that condition is likely to make us sick; that this or that symptom is related to a particular disease, or that this or that drug likely holds the answer to all our problems? When we do, how can we be certain that if and when we begin feeling sick ourselves that that sickness or that disease didn’t originate in our head.

Certainly there are times when our intuitions can be trusted; other times, maybe not so much. Of course, knowing just when our mind is playing tricks on us isn’t easy, but it is essential, especially when our health is involved.

For some this ability is bolstered through certain meditative practices, a quieting of the mind that helps them to see things more clearly and make better decisions. Others have found that a prayer-based opening of thought to a singular divine Mind helps them to sort things out. In either case, simply recognizing the relationship between our beliefs and our mental and physical well being can go very far in laying the groundwork for better health.

Whether we are enjoying a great piano concert or deciding how best to care for our bodies, being aware of how we think as well as watching what we think can make all the difference in the world.

Eric Nelson’s columns on the link between consciousness and health appear regularly in a number of local, regional, and national online publications. He also serves as the media and legislative spokesperson for Christian Science in Northern California.


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Eric Nelson

Eric Nelson has been published and featured in numerous newspapers, online publications, and radio talk programs. He speaks from years of experience in the mind-body field, especially as it relates to health. In addition, he is the media and legislative spokesperson for Christian Science in Northern California and is a self-employed Christian Science practitioner. He’s also a huge baseball fan and loves riding his bike in the nearby Santa Cruz Mountains. You can find him at www.norcalcs.org.

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