When my kids go to sleep, we put a pinch of sugar into their hair to help protect them from bad dreams. This began when they were having terrible nightmares that woke us up at all hours, and in our harried desperation to get them to go the fuck to sleep, we decided to conjure up a little placebo magic.
Although our adult brains know that a pinch of sugar is unlikely to spare them the trouble of nightmares, to child this was just the medicine that was needed to make bedtime a little more comfortable and secure. This is the incredible power of the placebo effect.
The Placebo Effect: a beneficial effect produced by a placebo drug or treatment, which cannot be attributed to the properties of the placebo itself, and must therefore be due to the patient’s belief in that treatment. (Lexico by Oxford)
When we think of placebos we think of fake pills and snake oil remedies. However, the placebo effect has real serious implications when it comes to how we approach life. As a skeptical witch and proud owner of a psychology degree (that’s collecting dust), I find the placebo effect fascinating, as are its implications when it comes to the tricky problem of mind over matter.
It’s estimated that 1 in 3 people will experience beneficial effects from placebo treatments. Since these are inactive medicines/treatments, the benefits that are gained are hypothesized to be psychological in origin. This means the persons belief in the treatment (including their attitudes and expectations towards it) is the “active” ingredient.
I don’t know about you, but this is the kind of magic I find very compelling.
What Does This Mean in the Context of Witchcraft?
For many modern witches, the craft is approached as a worldview and sacred practice that invites a bit of the mystical into the mundane. Despite where you fall on the “non-religious witch” spectrum, chances are you see the craft as a way to tackle your wellness, personal growth, and a means to feel empowered in the murky soup of modern adulthood.
Apart from this, most witches have real stories of how practicing has improved their lives or circumstances. We’re talking spells that actually worked, experiences that feel unexplainable, and an attitudinal overhaul that can feel downright spooky. For those of us that strap on our binoculars and frantically search for a scientific answer, the placebo effect is a way to explain some (perhaps not all) of this magic.
When it comes to magic, witchcraft may act as the placebo. Through correspondences, chants, spells, and energy work, we effectively hack our brains into working in a way that’s favorable to us and our desired outcomes. Through belief, we are able to empower ourselves and direct our minds to achieve specific outcomes. As we engage our brains in the practice of the craft, our mundane actions fall into line with our desires, which helps boost the magic and the possibility of getting exactly what we want.
Even spookier still, there is the “open-label placebo effect”, in which people who knew they had a placebo, still saw results. This is likely why my skeptical ass still manages to benefit from magic, despite a lack of belief in divine intervention.
Placebo Magic is not necessarily a complete explanation, but it helps.
Despite loving science, I personally remain open to things that are not yet understood. Many witches don’t feel the need to think too much on the why or how when they’re getting the results they want.
We humans do feel a need for the spiritual, which is why it may be unnecessarily reductive to boil down the mystic so it fits in these tiny boxes that our rational minds create. Regardless, knowing about the placebo effect and where it might fit into your life when it comes to psychology and magic can be valuable. At the very least, it can help you explain your practice to those who might not be able to understand the power and importance of witchcraft for conjuring up a life you love.
If you’re a nerd like me and want to dive deeper into the placebo effect and current theories that surround this phenomenon, check out this very thorough piece on Vox!