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Here’s What Placebos Can Heal—And What They Can’t

for National Geographic Book Talk

Illness is best cured with drugs. That assumption has prevailed since pharmaceuticals became widely available. But in recent years there has been a growing interest in alternative medicines, many of which employ mental or spiritual powers to heal the body. Now research into the biochemistry of placebos is showing that these remedies are not as wacky as they sound and that we are, indeed, capable of curing ourselves.

In Suggestible You: The Curious Science of Your Brain’s Ability to Deceive, Transform, and Heal, Erik Vance applies the latest science to an exotic smorgasbord of alternative therapies, including acupuncture, hypnosis, and even witchcraft—many of which he tests on himself. (Suggestible You was published by National Geographic.)

Talking from his home in Mexico City, Vance, who trained as a biologist, explains why his childhood experience of Christian Science piqued his interest in the mind’s power over health, why placebos are particularly effective in treating Parkinson’s disease, and why he asked a witch doctor in Mexico to put a curse on him.