Christian Long

Eric Mead: The Magic of the Placebo

In TED Talks on May 9, 2010 at 9:32 pm

Reflection by JENNA K.

Original TED page w/ speaker bio, links, comments, etc:

Eric Mead:  The Magic of the Placebo

Despite the name, this talk was about more than placebos; it was about making something fake or false seem like more than it is.

Our minds are very vulnerable to deception, the placebo effect is just one example of this. Eric Mead demonstrates how we are easily influenced by the presentation of ideas, and how we are limited by how our brains processes information. He also explains how perception and persuasion are important for a greater effect on a person. The placebo effect is important in more than just medical studies and therapeutic care, it is important in understanding how the brain works.

The mechanics of the placebo are dependent on a persons perception and on their expectations. Basically, if a person is absolutely sure something will result from taking a placebo, they are able to make themselves believe something did result. If they are presented with something that could be effective, and they are not able to perceive any reasons why it couldn’t be effective, the placebo effect is stronger. This is why presentation and persuasion are so important, as Mead describes by comparing the effects of a white pill to the effects of a needle.

By observing the placebo effect we are able to see how vulnerable our minds are to persuasion and how we are weakened by our inability to perceive some things as they really are. This is why Mead compares the placebo effect to magic. Magic is also a demonstration of perception and persuasion and also how we process information. Take the knife trick he did for example. We should have noticed that there were only three fingers showing when there should have been four, and we should have interpreted this observation to figure out how the knife was staying there. The fact that people don’t notice this and don’t interpret this information is a demonstration of how easily we are fooled.

The last “magic trick” that Mead performed confused me a little. I’m not really sure what he was trying to prove by sticking a needle through his arm. Either he actually did stick the needle through, and he was trying to imply that the only way something can be real is by actually being real, and not by being presented as real. Or, he didn’t actually stick the needle through his arm and I am missing the trick. I’m not really sure which one it is, and since he walked off the stage without saying, I don’t think I ever will. But it is likely that I am being fooled just as easily as I was with the knife trick. Its also likely that I would be fooled by a placebo.

I believe Mead just made me realize how easily I myself am deceived by what I do and don’t perceive.


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