placebo-brainNo Respect?

Like the former comedian Rodney Dangerfield, placebos just “can’t get no respect!”  In this article, I will investigate the latest brain science, i.e., why this is so… and more importantly, how the scientific and medical community is coming around to actually praise this elusive health factor that can affect you and your coaching clients . . . and how they respond to your coaching.

Let’s face it:  certain coaching clients get better results than others.  Might the “placebo effect” play a part in responding to coaching as well as to medical treatment?  Let’s look at this . . .

A friend recently sent me an article published in Discover Magazine back in July/August, 2014. In this article entitled “Power of The Placebo,” author Erik Vance laid out a comprehensive argument on how the term “placebo” lost all respect, and why its coming back.  My friend went on to suggest that the Logical Soul® might even be instrumental in unlocking this hidden brain potential.

The term “Placebo” has been defined online as:

  1. a harmless pill, medicine, or procedure prescribed more for the psychological benefit to the patient than for any physiological effect.
  2. a substance that has no therapeutic effect, used as a control in testing new drugs, or
  3. a measure designed merely to calm or please someone.

According to the Discover article, some researchers including Dr. Sarah Lidstone of the University of British Columbia, view these definitions as woefully inadequate.  “Perhaps it was because I’ve been a patient myself, I don’t know,” says Dr. Lidstone, “I think the idea of patients being able to heal themselves is very powerful…”

The Role of the Placebo

Since World War II,  placebos have played an important, albeit minor, role in aiding the development of new drugs and medicines.  The idea that placebos are “strictly psychological” has swayed researchers since the 1940’s and 50’s to disregard them when looking for “real” physiological changes brought on by drugs or stimuli.

Because of this history, some practitioners still dismiss placebo effects as irrelevant.  Others go so far as to blame such effects on neurosis.  Most modern researchers, however, increasingly recognize the placebo response as an authentic neurochemical reaction in the brain and nervous system.  The Discover article points out that because of improved imaging technology, we are able to peer into brain functions that eluded us in the past, and to even harness these discoveries in clinical practice – “unleashing the power of, well, nothing!”

Kathryn Hall, a molecular geneticist at Harvard, discovered that certain conditions – like pain, depression and Parkinson’s disease – responded well to the placebo effect, while other conditions – notably cancer – did not.  In her search to find out why, she found that the hidden factor had to do with the amount of dopamine present in the brain, and how the abundance of this substance is affected by the presence of the amino acid Valine – which would restrict it – or of Methionine, an amino acid that leaves more dopamine circulating in the brain (there is a long-lettered enzyme that reacts to dopamine levels directly, with the initials COMT, but I won’t get into it here…).  She classified those with a genetic tendency towards producing valine as “VALS,” and those genetically disposed to creating more methionine as the “METS.”

The fact is, the VALS are less susceptible to suggestions brought on by the placebo effect than the METS.  The obvious conclusion to all this is that there are PHYSIOLOGICAL and brain-chemical reasons for the placebo effect . . . making it an actual phenomenon, rather than a symptom of “neurosis.”  More research and brain imaging will no doubt confirm this reality, which will eventually become the norm.

So how does this affect you as a life coach? 

Well, for starters, those who are a bit hard-nosed when it comes to changes in life (VALS) are genetically predisposed to all the characteristics that low dopamine levels would indicate, i.e., viewing  life as painful and/or depressing.  They would tend to be more pessimistic, “live in the real world,” and would likely never become a coaching client anyway.  So chances are slim you would ever have them as a coaching client. They also tend to be the ones most likely to develop Parkinson’s disease.

The METS, however, are highly susceptible to both impressions and placebo effects, owing to their higher levels of dopamine.   By drawing their own ideas and conclusions out of them, and helping them formulate a workable vision of possibilities, their own inner pharmacy of powerful endorphins will kick in and spur them to great achievement!

By focusing on those who actually want your coaching – and by using the power of suggestion and placebo, you can aid your clients to achieve great things . . . and kick up your own endorphin levels as well!