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Since then, various experiments and trials have linked the placebo effect with cortisol production in other contexts, such as in reducing post-operative swelling. However, cortisol itself can cause problems as well as solve them. Under stress, the body increases cortisol production, which suppresses all aspects of the immune system, not just inflammation.

This can lower resistance to disease and it is possible that relaxation techniques can aid recovery from some infectious illnesses by reducing stress and, at the same time, dampening sympathetic nervous system activity, in turn lowering cortisol production and taking the brakes off the immune system.

It might be that the placebo effect and relaxation techniques can help to mediate the production of cortisol. But if the placebo effect is so beneficial, why do we not invoke it automatically, rather than waiting for an inert pill or a doctor who we trust?

Desire for Power, Status, Fame and Recognition

According to one of the leading placebo theorists, psychologist Nicholas Humphrey at Cambridge University, UK, the answer could come from research into its evolutionary significance. He argues that humans have evolved a highly sophisticated health management system designed to control the expenditure of critical resources in order to maximize survival chances. The placebo effect is merely an emergent property of that system, intended to avoid investing too many resources in an immune response to a relatively minor infection such as the common cold. The placebo effect is … intended to avoid investing too many resources in an immune response to a relatively minor infection such as the common cold.

In a similar manner, pain evolved to restrict unnecessary activity and to encourage rest. The placebo effect would then overcome these constraints either when activity becomes necessary or when the associated risk is small—in effect it gives the immune system permission to release the brakes from the body's activities.

Seen this way, the placebo effect reverses the antiquated response of the health management system, because the risks against which it provides insurance no longer exist.

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There is also another possibility, although not supported by Humphrey, that feeling ill might itself have an evolutionary function. This would explain why the placebo effect sometimes dampens, rather than stimulates, the immune system—for example, by releasing cortisol into the blood stream. To conserve resources, it might in fact elevate some aspects of the immune response.

Benedetti speculates that health management began to evolve in a social context among the leading non-human primates. This behaviour would have been carried forward by natural selection operating at both an individual and a group level.

Individuals who trust a member of the social group, be it a chimpanzee, Homo erectus or Homo sapiens , are better placed than those who do not. At the same time, groups that have an individual in whom other members successfully invest their trust are more likely to survive and prosper. Thus, the role of endogenous healthcare management seems to be to identify when to override natural caution through a combination of risk assessment and reassurance by a trusted group member.

The question in medical practice is how to exploit this and reinforce clinical or surgical therapies by reassuring the patient. The main problem is that the placebo effect operates in different ways, with large individual and cultural variations. The most important distinction is between placebos that exploit the patient's expectation of success and those that operate through conditioning, because success will often depend on selecting the one most appropriate for the condition.

Benedetti's study included sufferers of Parkinson disease and healthy volunteers who were told that a drug—actually a placebo comprising saline solution—would deliver pain relief and increase the production of growth hormone while inhibiting cortisol secretion.

10 Ways Christians Misuse Faith

The verbal suggestion worked for pain relief but not for hormone secretion. However, the patients were then conditioned by replacing the placebo with sumatriptan, a drug that stimulates growth hormone while inhibiting cortisol. When this was later replaced by the placebo, the same pattern of growth hormone stimulation and cortisol inhibition was observed, suggesting that pre-conditioning—but not suggestion—creates the right environment for placebos to influence hormone secretion.

In the case of pain relief, where the patient can observe the effect, the opposite was true Benedetti et al , It is not yet clear how this knowledge of the cause and metabolic consequences of the placebo effect could be exploited clinically to benefit patients.

Praying with populists

In the end, it might just be a matter of common sense: perhaps the greatest impact in medical practice will not be in misleading patients with the prescription of inert pills, but through greater transparency, with doctors only administering treatment in which they have sufficient confidence. This, in itself, might generate a placebo effect. National Center for Biotechnology Information , U. EMBO Rep. Philip Hunter. Copyright and License information Disclaimer. This article has been cited by other articles in PMC.


Jesus accepts the father's faith on behalf of his son. Those who support infant baptism have found in this text a principle they believe supports it Richardson ; those who emphasize the importance of personal faith at baptism are not persuaded by the analogy. But in either case the principle applies for many other kinds of prayer compare, for example, ; ; 1 Jn and encourages us in our faith for others' needs compare ; ; Jesus Summons Us to Grow in Active Faith Jesus expected his disciples to have sufficient faith to repeat his miracles by this point vv.

Disciples were by definition apprentices in training to assume the role of their teachers. Jesus had already sent his disciples out, and they had healed the sick and driven out demons Had they not seen enough to believe compare ? Matthew expected his audience to learn from these recorded signs of Jesus, just as the first disciples did when they witnessed them.

We who read these accounts in the Bible should be growing in our faith relationship with Jesus, as the disciples did who first walked with him. How often do needs around us go unmet because we neglect radical trust in God, especially on behalf of others' needs?

The Disciples Lacked the Most Basic Level of Faith Jesus explicitly attributes their inability to the smallness of their faith compare ; ; ; , pointing out that even a mustard seed's worth of faith would be sufficient to cast out not merely demons but mountains ; ; 1 Cor The disciples already recognized how small a mustard seed was Mt Ancient peoples thought of mountains as rooted far beneath the earth Gundry , so "moving mountains" was a typical Jewish teacher's image for doing what was virtually impossible.

With this illustration Jesus indicates that even were we casting out mountains rather than demons, we would only be scratching the surface of a life of faith. What could we do with faith greater than that of a tiny mustard seed!

Keeping the Faith

Like children who have only begun to walk, most of us have only begun our adventure of faith. God twice honored Elijah's call for fire from heaven 2 Kings , but then instructed him to accompany the third captain who by this point, at least, feared God enough to provide the prophet safe passage. Jesus' disciples had preferred the glories of the messianic kingdom to suffering Mt , ; ; like them, we must avoid missing the point of his triumphant empowerment compare 1 Cor ; Lk Faith means willingness to go where God leads, not power to avert all unpleasant circumstances.

We mature as the Lord leads us through hard tests for his name's sake, forcing us to actively trust his provision and power. Jesus gives us access to tremendous power for accomplishing his will. Jesus' own example shows us, however, that those who have an intimate faith relationship with God act in compassion for others' needs rather than exploiting power frivolously Mt Previous commentary: Miracles and Disciples.

Next commentary: Upholding Society's Requirements.