Judy had suffered from fibromyalgia for years. It kept her from playing with her grandkids and eventually forced her to give up her beloved dog, Charlie, because she could no longer take him for his daily walk. Disease had stolen her life, and she was ready to give up.
Urged by her family, Judy decided to give one more medication a chance. Her doctor had been granted permission to enroll Judy in a clinical trial to test the latest breakthrough in fibromyalgia treatment. The new therapy was showing tremendous efficacy in all previous trials. Judy’s doctor sent her home with a packet of information, full of charts and graphs showing how well patients using this new drug had reacted. To the untrained eye, it looked to be as close to a miracle drug as there could be for fibromyalgia sufferers.
Feeling like she had nothing left to lose, Judy signed up and started on her new medication. Within a week, the pain had noticeably decreased. By the second week, Judy was out walking the block after lunch. After a month, Judy felt so good, she packed up her car and drove the three-hundred miles to see her grandkids… at their house. Enduring half a day in the car was unthinkable just weeks before, but thanks to this new drug, Judy was back to living life on her own terms.
When she got back from her visit, Judy called her doctor to report her progress. He chuckled and said he was happy to hear about her success. He instructed Judy to maintain the same dosage for another three months, at which time she’d have to return for a checkup.
Three Months Later…
The pain had almost completely disappeared. Judy’s miracle drug was working. Then she went in for her checkup, and everything changed.
After filling out the required drug trial’s questionnaire, Judy’s doctor informed her not only was the trial ending, but that Judy had been in the control group all along. In other words, she’d been taking nothing more than a sugar pill.
Judy was simultaneously crushed and stupefied. Her pain had decreased. She had been feeling better than she had in years, and she believed it was all thanks to this miracle drug. But she just learned it was nothing but a fake.
A day later, her pain returned and her mood sunk. Judy had once again lost hope that her fibromyalgia could ever be cured, and out of habit she returned to her former sedentary life just to tolerate the pain.
So What Happened?
Judy’s miraculous recovery during the study could not be attributed to the drug. She wasn’t taking any pharmaceutical concoction; she was taking a daily dose of sugar and nothing more. So what happened?
The paranormal happened, and while Judy may not be real, her paranormal experience is anything but fictitious. Webster defines “paranormal” as very strange and not able to be explained by what scientists know about nature and the world. The fact that Judy experienced physical pain relief is inexpiable by what scientists know, even though it happens all the time.
By definition, Judy’s momentary recovery was paranormal… but in this case, we call it by a different name: placebo. And with that different name, it becomes acceptable, believable, credible. Interestingly, why we “believe in” this specific paranormal phenomenon is the same reason why the placebo effect seems to work. Both have to do with expectations.
To explain the placebo effect, many researchers take a mind-body connection approach. They say it’s our expectations, our belief systems that engage the brain into responding to the sugar pill. Our brains have evolved to expect medical treatments to work, so when we’re given a pill we expect to feel better. Mentally, we set ourselves up for a positive outcome. What scientists know so far about nature and the world comes up short when attempting to explain how those positive outcomes result from a sugar pill… thus, the placebo effect remains a paranormal phenomenon.
We don’t make a habit out of categorizing the placebo effect as paranormal because most of us cringe when we hear the word, expecting whatever comes next to be wildly unreliable nonsense. The word has been tarnished and misappropriated by skeptics who’ve done their best to redefine paranormal as nothing more than quackery. We hear paranormal and we think ghosts and crystal balls—we don’t think “double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial.”
Expectations, great or not, help create our reality. In the case of Judy and her placebo, we accept the paranormal as real. In the case of the paranormal (with a capital P), we don’t.