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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