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Suggestible You

The Curious Science of Your Brain's Ability to Deceive, Transform, and Heal

By Erik Vance
15-minute read
Audio available
Suggestible You by Erik Vance

Suggestible You (2016) shows the amazing ways our expectations affect our body’s responses to illness, pain and memory. It explores how the power of human suggestibility changes the processes that happen in our bodies and minds. And it describes how humans can – and already do – harness this ability to improve lives, whether in medicine or in everyday life.

  • Everyone interested in how the human mind works
  • People who don’t believe in miraculous cures but are curious about the science behind them
  • Anyone who’s ever wondered about the body’s ability to heal itself

Erik Vance is an award-winning science writer. He has a degree in biology and worked as a researcher, educator, and environmental consultant before starting a career as a journalist in 2005. His work has been published in Harper’s Magazine, the New York Times, Scientific American, and National Geographic. He is also a contributing editor at Discover magazine.

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Suggestible You

The Curious Science of Your Brain's Ability to Deceive, Transform, and Heal

By Erik Vance
  • Read in 15 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 9 key ideas
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Suggestible You by Erik Vance
Synopsis

Suggestible You (2016) shows the amazing ways our expectations affect our body’s responses to illness, pain and memory. It explores how the power of human suggestibility changes the processes that happen in our bodies and minds. And it describes how humans can – and already do – harness this ability to improve lives, whether in medicine or in everyday life.

Key idea 1 of 9

Placebos work by tapping into the power of suggestion.

Think back to the last time you took a painkiller. Do you remember swallowing the pill and feeling its soothing effects spreading through your body almost immediately?

If so, you were experiencing the placebo effect. Most painkillers take at least 15 minutes to work. That immediate relief many of us feel when we take a pill comes down, not to an actual physical sensation in the body, but to what we expect to happen.

The key message here is: Placebos work by tapping into the power of suggestion.

A placebo usually refers to a substance that is neutral or inert – like a sugar pill – but still has a positive effect on a patient.

Take homeopathic remedies. The idea behind them is that it’s the essence of the medicine that has the healing effect, so if you dilute it with water until nothing of the chemical itself remains, the water would convey the essence and cure the patient. Most doctors agree that it’s a placebo. The pills have no active ingredients – or at least not in enough concentration – that could cause the claimed benefits. And yet, for some people, the effects are real.

For example, if you’re so depressed you’re unable to leave your home, you might be willing to try anything. One woman in this situation went through years of medications and therapy that hadn’t done anything to help. Finally, she turned to homeopathy.

When she saw the homeopath, they talked for hours about her life and her condition. It turned out that the woman could relate her sadness all the way back to one freezing night in her childhood, when she and her family were fleeing the Nazis in Germany. Based on that conversation, the homeopath came up with a solution: a regular dose of melted snow in a vial. Homeopaths believe that like cures like, so it was supposed to reflect the power of that terrifying cold night.

Amazingly, it worked. The woman got better and even started traveling to see her friends. All because of some sips of water in a vial.

What happened there?

The story linking her sadness to that cold night that the homeopath helped the woman create resonated with her deeply. Our stories, after all, are what creates our vision of ourselves and of the world. They shape how we see things. By helping the woman make sense of her feelings through a story that spoke to her, the homeopath helped her let go of the fears that trapped her indoors.

The snow in the vial was just a prop. But it reveals the power of suggestion.

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