Placebos May Work Even If You Know the Treatment Isn't Real


People are notoriously susceptible to the placebo effect, in which a fake treatment can improve our condition simply because we, believing it's real, expect it to work. Clinical trials for new drugs compensate for this tendency by administering sugar pills or other inactive treatments to some patients to tease out whether a medication is actually effective or if people are merely fooling themselves into believing their condition has improved.

While it’s important for scientists to find treatments that actually do help people, the placebo effect may not be all bad. A new study of pain medication placebos finds that even when people know they’re not taking a real medication, they can be conditioned to feel pain relief from the fake treatment. 

The study, published in the Journal of Pain, included 54 participants who were told they were going to receive either a “pain-relieving” cream or a cream with no active ingredients. (Both "creams" were actually just petroleum jelly.) Researchers from the University of Colorado at Boulder's Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Lab administered both creams to participants, describing the blue cream as pain relieving (the placebo) and the neutral jelly as inactive (the control).They then advised the participants on potential side effects.

After each cream had been put on their arm, the participants received a hot stimulus designed to measure their perception of pain. In the placebo condition, the researchers turned down the heat after the fake pain-relief cream was administered, leading the patients to believe the blue cream was working.

Over the next few weeks, some participants received four of these "treatments," or conditioning sessions. The rest of the subjects received just one. Then the researchers revealed to the participants that both the "pain relief" blue cream and the clear petroleum jelly were actually both inactive. 

They then re-tested all participants' responses to the blue cream placebo. And here's the interesting twist: the participants who had four treatments reported feeling pain relief from the blue cream—even though they knew the treatment was fake. Meanwhile, the participants who had experienced only one treatment did not.

This suggests that conditioning someone through repeated "treatments" to expect pain relief from a placebo can lead to real pain relief. 

"We're still learning a lot about the critical ingredients of placebo effects," Tor Wager, senior author of the study, said in a press statement. "What we think now is that they require both belief in the power of the treatment and experiences that are consistent with those beliefs. Those experiences make the brain learn to respond to the treatment as a real event. After the learning has occurred, your brain can still respond to the placebo even if you no longer believe in it."

One potential use for this finding is that people might be able to stop taking drugs but continue feeling similar levels of relief. "If a child has experience with a drug working, you could wean them off the drug, or switch that drug [with] a placebo, and have them continue taking it," as study co-author Scott Schafer explains

However, it might not work equally for all patients. Previous research indicates that there may be a genetic underpinning that makes some people more susceptible to the placebo effect than others. 

These Funky Glasses Are Designed to Reduce Motion Sickness

There's nothing like a sudden wave of nausea to ruin a scenic road trip or a cruise. According to Visuall, the French car company Citroën has made a product that allows you to fight motion sickness without medication.

Their glass-less spectacles, called SEETROËN, implement technology first developed by the French startup Boarding Ring. Motion sickness occurs when the information we receive from our inner ear doesn't match up with what we see in front of us. SEETROËN tackles this problem in a simple way: Liquid at the bottom of all four rings (two in front of the eyes, two at the peripheries) responds to gravity and changes in movement the same way the fluid in your inner ear does. By having an "artificial horizon" to look at when you're in the back of a bumpy car, your visual senses should realign with your sense of balance, and you'll no longer feel queasy.

The accessory isn't exactly fashionable, unless maybe you're going for a space-age look, but you shouldn't worry about appearing goofy for too long. After staring at a still object like a book through the glasses for 10 to 12 minutes, you can remove them and continue to enjoy the benefits as you proceed with your trip, the company claims.

SEETROËN is currently out of stock at Citroën's lifestyle store, with the next shipment estimated for September. The company claims the spectacles show positive results 95 percent of the time, and the technology it uses won an INNOV'inMed award for health innovation. But like with any new technology meant to treat a medical condition, users should be cautious. Time-tested ways to prevent motion sickness include sitting in the front seat of a car, eating something light before you travel, and focusing your gaze on something outside the nearest window.

[h/t Visuall]

5 Simple and Painless Ways to Remove a Splinter

Splinters are as sneaky as they are annoying. You never see one coming, but once one gets embedded in you, you’re definitely going to feel it. The most common way to pull one of these out of your body is to grab a pair of tweezers and just start digging. While that might work for splinters that haven't lodged too deep into your body, it’s far from ideal for the ones completely under the surface. Plus, it hurts.

Thankfully, you don’t always need sharp instruments or a trip to the doctor to get rid of those stubborn splinters—there are plenty of items lying around your house right now that can help draw them out. So the next time you find yourself with a painful piece of wood or other material stuck in your foot, finger, etc. be sure to wash the affected area with soap and warm water and give one of these simple—and painless—remedies a try.


Epsom salts are an incredibly versatile cure-all for common ailments like sunburn and sore muscles. But one of its lesser known uses is the fact that it can help bring deep splinters to the surface of your skin.

To get this to work, just dissolve a cup of the salts into a warm bath and soak whatever part of the body has the splinter. Failing that, you can also put some of the salts onto a bandage pad and leave it covered for a day; this will eventually help bring the splinter to the surface. Both methods help to draw the splinter out, which you can then pull out completely with a tweezer.


They can do everything from whiten your teeth to shine your shoes, but banana peels can also rid you of your splinter woes. Simply take a portion of a ripe peel and tape the inside portion over the area with the splinter. From there, the enzymes in the peel will get to work by softening your skin and helping the splinter move closer to the surface.

Some say just a few minutes is often all it takes, but if you can leave it on longer (especially overnight), you’ll have a better chance that the splinter will surface. Sometimes it will be drawn out far enough that it will come out on its own when you remove the peel; other times you may still need to use a pair of tweezers to finish the job. And if it doesn’t work after one night, replace the peel and leave it on for another day.

Don’t have a banana handy? You can also try a potato slice using essentially the same method: Place the skinless side on the area, hold in place with a bandage, and leave it on overnight. Then remove it and see if the splinter has surfaced.


First, before you do anything, clean the affected area with soap and water. Then combine a little water with ¼ of a tablespoon of baking soda to make a paste that you can then spread on the splinter. Once the paste is spread, cover the area with a bandage and keep it just like that for a full 24 hours.

You should notice that the splinter has made its way to the surface, where you can now simply just remove it. If you still can't get a hold of it, you can repeat the same procedure until the splinter is sufficiently brought above the skin.


This method is best when a splinter is already drawn to the surface a bit but tweezers just won’t do. Simply take a piece of tape—go for something a little stronger, like duct tape—and place it over the splinter. Once the tape is secure (leave it on for a few minutes), gently pull it off. You may have to repeat this a few times to coax the splinter out. For a little added security, soak the area in warm water first to soften the skin.


Another simple way to draw out that stubborn splinter is to soak the affected area in oil (olive or corn) or white vinegar. Just pour some in a bowl and soak the area for around 20 to 30 minutes, then eyeball the splinter and see where it is. If it looks closer to the surface, but not enough to pull out, soak it longer. Once it gets far enough out, just remove it and wash the area with soap and water.


More from mental floss studios