Miracles and the power of suggestion

According to a story in the New York Times, the placebo effect isn’t just limited to a drug’s expected benefits. People can and do suffer negative side effects as a result of believing they are taking real drugs. It’s called the “nocebo” effect.

In a curious study, a team of Italian gastroenterologists asked people with and without diagnosed lactose intolerance to take lactose for an experiment on its effects on bowel symptoms. But in reality the participants received glucose, which does not harm the gut. Nonetheless, 44 percent of people with known lactose intolerance and 26 percent of those without lactose intolerance complained of gastrointestinal symptoms.

In one remarkable case, a participant in an antidepressant drug trial was given placebo tablets — and then swallowed 26 of them in a suicide attempt. Even though the tablets were harmless, the participant’s blood pressure dropped perilously low.

Is it any wonder that people have reported similarly astonishing effects produced from things like God, or demons? Influencing the imagination can and does produce measurable physical effects on the body, even in the absence of the things that are supposed to be causing them.

Something to think about the next time you’re flipping through the channels and find some shiny clean evangelist “healing” people.


  1. Another Commenter says

    I’ve said for a long time that I believe in faith healing, just not faith heal’ER’s….suggestion is powerful, as this (well, single data point) shows.

  2. mikespeir says

    It’s these little “miracles,” the ones anybody can experience, that “prep” people for belief in the bigger ones lying conveniently beyond the reach of empirical verification. The fact that my headache went away when I prayed proves that miracles happen, so I have less trouble believing that some dead guy in Africa was brought back to life by a faith healer.

  3. Hunt says

    I haven’t investigated such anecdotes at all, so take this with a grain of salt, but I have heard stories of people who have voodoo curses placed on them, and know it and believe in them, who promptly end up dead. Something similar could be happening.

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