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No. 38: Mar-Apr 1985

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The Subtle Placebo

A most interesting series of placebo experiments have been carried out by J.D. Levine and N.C. Gordon, of the University of California at San Francisco. The subjects were all dental patients who were tested when their surgical anesthesia was wearing off. The substances administered were: (1) a placebo; (2) morphine; and (3) naloxone, a substance that blocks the opiates produced in the brain. The doses were administered: (1) openly, when the experimenter knew which substance was being given; (2) by a person hidden from both experimenter and patient; and (3) by a machine.

Two findings are particularly revealing. First, pain always increased after naloxone was administered, implying that the opiates blocked by naloxone are probably the same as those released by placebos. More significant, however, was the fact that both the open and hidden administrations of the placebo reduced pain while the machine-applied placebo resulted in more pain. In other words, when either the experimenter or the hidden administrator knew that the placebo was being given, the placebo worked. Levine and Gordon supposed that there must have been subtle clues, detected subconsciously by the patients, that the hidden person was administering the placebo.

(Anonymous; "The Subtle Strength of Placebos," Science News, 127:25, 1985.)

Comment. If no subtle clues existed, wouldn't this be a possible example of telepathy?

From Science Frontiers #38, MAR-APR 1985. 1985-2000 William R. Corliss

Science Frontiers Sourcebook Project Reviewed in:


  • "A sourcebook of unexplained phenomena is therefore a valuable addition to a collection of scientific literature. William R. Corliss has provided this in the past with his source books of scientific anomalies in several subjects, and now he has provided it for astronomy. He has done an excellent job of collecting and editing a large amount of material, taken in part from scientific journals and in part from scientific reporting in the popular or semi-scientific press." -- "The Mysterious Universe: A Handbook of Astronomical Anomalies", reviwed by Thomas Gold, Cornell University, in Icarus, vol.41, 1980

  • "An interesting, systematic presentation of unusual weather [..] This book is recommended for a general audience" --"Corliss, William R., Tornados, Dark Days, Anomalous Precipitation, and Related Weather Phenomena, Sourcebook Project, 1983.", revieweed in Choice, September 1983
  • "..the science is necessarily somewhat speculative, but Corliss's symthesis is based on reputable sources." -- "Corliss, William R. (Compiler). Lightning, Auroras, Nocturnal Lights, and Related Luminous Phenomena" reviwed by Joseph M. Moran, Univ. of Wisconsin in Science Books and Films, Sep/Oct 1983

  • "Before opening the book, I set certain standards that a volume which treads into dangerous grounds grounds like this must meet. The author scrupulously met, or even exceeded those standards. Each phenomenon is exhaustively documented, with references to scientific journals [..] and extensive quotations" -- "Book Review: The moon and planets: a catalog of astronomical anomalies", The Sourcebook Project, 1985., Corliss, W. R., Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Vol. 81, no. 1 (1987), p. 24., 02/1987