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The Power of Words and the Current Use of Hypnosis and Placebos

All that we perceive might be contaminated by beliefs about the physical world.

Key points

  • Hypnosis is an example of how words can affect the mind and how the mind in turn can affect the body.
  • Response to a placebo is a function of the symbols, rituals, and behaviours embedded in the clinical encounter.
  • Newborns can be poisoned for decades by unkind remarks such as: “What’s wrong with her head.” “This looks like a sickly one.”
SNeG17 on Shutterstock
Source: SNeG17 on Shutterstock

Mind Over Matter

What effect do words with an emotional charge have on humans? While there is much psychological evidence for the power of words there is a dearth of biological research on this subject. An example of the former approach is the research of David Chamberlain, a San Diego psychologist and one of the early pioneers of pre- and perinatal psychology. According to Chamberlain, birth memories that arise in the course of insight-oriented psychotherapy illustrate how babies can be stung and poisoned for decades by unkind remarks such as, “What’s wrong with her head.” Or, “Wow, this looks like a sickly one.”

The Science of Hypnosis

Another example of how words can affect the mind and how the mind in turn can affect the body is hypnosis. Hypnosis is best described as an altered state of consciousness, similar to relaxation, meditation, or sleep. Traditionally, psychologists and neuroscientists have been skeptical of hypnosis and distrustful of participants’ subjective reports of profound changes in perception following specific suggestions. However, the advent of cognitive neuroscience and the application of neuroimaging methods to hypnosis has brought about the validation of participants’ subjective responses to hypnosis. Therefore, it is not surprising that in 1958, the American Medical Association suggested that hypnosis should be included in the curriculum of medical schools, and in 1960, the Association of American Psychologists officially acknowledged the therapeutic use of hypnosis by psychologists.

Individuals suffering from chronic pain, irritable bowel syndrome, and PTSD have benefited from hypnosis. Psychotherapists have also successfully used hypnosis in the service of age regression and the uncovering of past traumas. What hypnosis teaches us is that the words of a person who is perceived by the subject as having certain powers can change bodily movement (“your arm feels light as a feather, let it rise towards the ceiling”) or provide analgesia for painful procedures.

The Science of Placebos

Hypnosis and placebos have much in common. What is a placebo? A placebo is an inactive treatment, sometimes called a “sugar pill.” In fact, a placebo may be a pill, tablet, injection, medical device, or a suggestion. Whatever the form, placebos often look like the real medical treatment that is being studied except they do not contain the active medication. Using placebos in clinical trials helps scientists better understand whether a new medical treatment is safer and more effective than no treatment at all.

This is called the Placebo Effect. This effect describes any psychological or physical effect that a placebo treatment has on an individual. Placebos have been shown to produce measurable, physiological changes, such as an increase in heart rate or blood pressure. Placebos can reduce the symptoms of numerous conditions, including Parkinson’s disease, depression, anxiety, irritable bowel syndrome, and chronic pain. Researchers have repeatedly shown interventions such as “sham” acupuncture to be as effective as acupuncture. Sham acupuncture uses retractable needles that do not pierce the skin.

Placebo interventions vary in strength depending on many factors. For instance, an injection causes a stronger placebo effect than a tablet. Two tablets work better than one, capsules are stronger than tablets, and larger pills produce greater reactions. One review of multiple studies found that even the color of pills made a difference in the placebo results.

The positive health benefit that a patient experiences in response to a placebo is a function of the symbols, rituals, and behaviors embedded in their clinical encounter. Part of the power of the placebo lies in the expectations of the individual taking them. These expectations can relate to the treatment, the substance, or the prescribing doctor. If these expectations are positive, the patient will have a positive response to the placebo and vice versa.

This is very similar to hypnosis. The more the subject expects the hypnosis to work, the deeper they will enter a hypnotic trance. A person expecting a certain outcome such as pain relief, will by way of his mental operations initiate a cascade of physiological responses (hormonal, immunological) that will cause effects similar to what a medication might have achieved.

This process of expectations extends right into our brains. It has been by now well established that humans depend on our senses to perceive the world, ourselves, and each other. Despite senses being the only window to the outside world, people do rarely question how faithfully they represent the external physical reality. During the last 20 years, neuroscience research has revealed that the cerebral cortex constantly generates predictions on what will happen next and that neurons in charge of sensory processing only encode the difference between our predictions and the actual reality.

A team of neuroscientists of TU Dresden headed by Katharina von Kriegstein presents findings that show that not only the cerebral cortex, but the entire auditory pathway, represents sounds according to prior expectations. The Dresden group has found evidence that this process also dominates the most primitive and evolutionary conserved parts of the brain. All that we perceive might be deeply contaminated by our subjective beliefs of the physical world.

Like hypnosis, placebos demonstrate clearly the power the mind has over matter.


Chamberlain, David (1988). Babies Remember Birth. Los Angeles, CA: Jeremy P Tarcher.

Holdevici, I. (2014). A brief introduction to the history and clinical use of hypnosis. Romanian Journal of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Hypnosis, 1(1), 1-5.

Tabas, A., Mihai, G., Kiebel, S., Trampel, R., & von Kriegstein, K. (2020). Abstract rules drive adaptation in the subcortical sensory pathway. Elife, 9, e64501.

Jensen, M. P., Jamieson, G. A., Santarcangelo, E. L., ... & Terhune, D. B. et al., (2017). New directions in hypnosis research: strategies for advancing the cognitive and clinical neuroscience of hypnosis. Neuroscience of consciousness, 2017(1), nix004.

De Craen, A. J., Roos, P. J., De Vries, A. L., & Kleijnen, J. (1996). Effect of colour of drugs: systematic review of perceived effect of drugs and of their effectiveness. Bmj, 313(7072), 1624-1626.

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