The Day I ‘Placebo-ed’ My Son


My two-year-old son was screaming. Lemon juice had gotten into a tiny cut on his finger and the sting in conjunction with a missed daytime nap meant he was feeling especially emotional and vulnerable. As far as he was concerned the pain in his finger signified the end of the world.


Luckily I’d just been reading about the power of placebo and I had an idea. I would ‘placebo’ my son. Before I tell you about what I did, let me explain a little about the placebo response.


In the last decade there has been an explosion of new research exploring the phenomena where people are administered an inert treatment and as a result, experience psychological benefits and sometimes physiological healing.


There are different ways this may happen, for example a person may have improved cardio vascular health after being given highly elaborate, but fake heart surgery, or a person may simply perceive to have improved asthma symptoms after being given fake treatment.


With the development of modern technology scientists have started to view the placebo response as far more than just saline treatments and sugar pills that get in the way of the development of new drugs. Recently they’ve been exploring what happens in a person’s brain when they start responding to a placebo and although in its infancy, they’ve also started identifying the genetic programing of people who are more likely to benefit from being given a placebo.


I’m fascinated by the work of Professor Ted Kaptchuk from Harvard who recently performed a study that found the placebo response is dose dependent – the more care and attention people get, the stronger their physical response even if the treatment isn’t real.


In Kaptchuk’s study 262 people suffering from irritable bowel syndrome were split into three groups. The first group received no treatment. The second group received fake acupuncture without much attention from the practitioner. In fact when the practitioners treating the second group introduced themselves, they stated they had reviewed the patient’s questionnaire and “knew what to do,” then proceeded to say little else. The third group also received fake acupuncture but had great attention lavished upon them. The practitioners purposely adopted a warm, friendly manner and expressed empathy by saying things like “I can understand how difficult IBS must be for you.” They communicated an air of confidence and positive expectation and at times spent 20 seconds in thoughtful silence while feeling the pulse of their patient or pondering the treatment plan.


After six weeks of receiving the placebo acupuncture the results weren’t surprising. The patients who experienced the greatest relief were those who received the most care.It’s no wonder that the therapeutic benefits of the ‘ritual of medicine’ are capturing the attention of placebo researchers around the world.


So when faced with a highly distressed toddler, with Kaptchuk’s study fresh in my mind, I paid a great deal of attention to my son’s painful experience with his lemon juice infused wound. I first gave him a big cuddle to sooth his tears and when the sobbing became calmer, I took his finger and contemplated the cut very thoughtfully (I considered getting out a magnifying glass so that I could actually see the cut, but thought this may be taking it a little too far).


I acknowledged that the juice from the lemon must have caused a painful stinging sensation and soon the tears fizzled to a sob. I made a great show of the ‘ritual of medicine’ as I carefully selected the appropriate band-aid to administer. By this time my son had stopped crying and was looking on with interest but for good measure, I offered to ‘kiss it better’ and sealed the experience with a special kiss on his finger.


I can’t say for sure that my performance (exceptional as it was) triggered any neurological effects on my son’s sense of pain, nor may it have cued his immune system to expedite the healing of his wound. But I can say for certain that my son felt a lot better. His mood improved and we made it through bath time and into bed without further incident that evening.


Coming back to the science, this research on placebo highlights for me the great responsibility that comes with being the carer of a sick person. In an age of jam packed waiting rooms and carefully allotted 10 or 15-minute windows with doctors we barely know, what potential for healing is being missed because doctors don’t have the time or inclination to perform the ‘ritual of medicine’?


I think back to the many interactions I had with health care providers over the years when I was unwell with my autoimmune disease and feel some sadness. One specialist rheumatologist never looked up from the screen in front of him. To him, I was just a bunch of results on a page.


My conclusion with all of this is to spend a lot of time finding the right doctors and any other health care providers you’re handing money over to. If you’re not well and you’re not feeling the love from your carer, find someone else immediately. It may make all the difference to your health outcomes.


One final note:


A few days after the great lemon juice incident of 2015, I was putting my son to bed. He wanted the fun of our bedtime stories and songs to continue and when I went to leave the room he began to cry. Offhandedly I said to him that I needed some Mum time and was going to have a hot shower to try and fix the ache in my back from sitting down too much and he stopped crying and became thoughtful. After I’d had my lovely warm shower, I found my son still awake.


‘How’s your back Mum?’ he asked in his sweet toddler voice.


“Want me to kiss it bedda?’


A rush of warmth and love went through my body and after he kissed my back ‘bedda’ the ache definitely went away. I may well have just been placeboed right back by my kind hearted, empathetic two-year-old, but I don’t mind one bit.

  • Francene

    Shannon, this is a beautiful story. In my compassionate moments, I too have used a lot of special creams and even a spray of fairy dust (some old bottle of nice smelling refreshing toner) for all sorts of ailments with my children. I have been struggling with what to do about a very unsatisfying experience with a specialist I am seeing (for an autoimmune type disorder) and your article has helped affirm to me, that the lack of care and connection that I feel with this care provider may be part of the reason the condition has been slow to respond to the medication. I have felt very much like a set of blood results, and feel entitled to a bit more TLC and placebo effect for the $100 or so I pay to see her. Thanks.

  • Hans-Ulrich Sappok

    Hi Shannon! Now its time to write. I am Dr.Saluto :) , a general doctor in Germany in Düsseldorf. I am a "late" father (55) and enjoy every day of this part of live with family and my 2y 9m young Lotta. The dialogue at the end of the Blog is a miracle. I also have this moments from this other world only a child can show us….
    Your film is a fantastic impuls for the Mind Body Medicine. I'm trying here at the university a long time to open the view to Salutogenesis and to a human medicine far from technique domination; mindfulness communication and selfcompassion and hypnotherapie and more of this instruments of communication to create healing supporting relathionships doctor patient. And after showing the films to some students here in the university, they start an MBM initiative with me to bring this view and science into the university medical curriculum. I closed my praxis and will open with an MBM Group Programm inkluding Meditation and Relaxation Response. Thanks also for the links and the studies in your Blog. Do you think you can create a link archive in your Blog with different themes like placebo, MBSR, Relax Response, Depression, Breath, Yoga. You have so much good material. How to overview: so thats my idea. If you are in Europe, let me know. All the best to you! U L I Sappok

  • Shannon

    Hi Francene, I love your idea of fairy dust spray. Gorgeous. Hope you've had better luck finding the right specialist. I know how hard it is!

  • Shannon

    Hi Hans,
    Thanks for this great news about the impact the film has had on you and some of your students. It's also lovely to hear about your experience as a Dad. Thanks also for your suggestion of creating an easy-to-navigate archive on the blog. Hopefully I'll be able to add this feature down the track. Let us know if you have any more screenings at the university by emailing through to Claire via our contact page. Also, if you haven't already checked out the work of Dr. Criag Hassed who is one of the experts in The Connection, have a look at him. He's made mindfulness an examinable part of the curriculum for medicine at Monash University here in Australia and it rolling it out to other faculties too.
    Warmest wishes,

  • Hans-Ulrich Sappok

    Thank you Shannon! Fantastic to communicate this way all over the world. Will check Criag Hassed activities and will inform you. ah yes: last friday we had MBM info meeting with 12 students and will
    have information activities for the other students in the next semester.
    For most of us and my patients is the next step after learning and experiencing mindfulness to learn Mindfulness Self Compassion (MSC). Maybe you mentioned it in your BLOG and I missed it. Best wishes for you and all the followers.

About the author: Shannon Harvey

Shannon Harvey is a journalist and producer who was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease when she was 24 years old. Although doctors meant well, none could offer her a cause or a cure. Since then Shannon has been researching the latest scientific research linking her mind and body to health outcomes. Nearly 10 years have passed since her diagnosis and today Shannon is well and not taking medication. Shannon has worked as a television, radio and online journalist and producer and has a Master’s degree in Communications. She worked for the ABC and Fairfax before starting her own production company, Elemental Media. Shannon is the director of the feature film The Connection.



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