The Magic and Power of Placebo (#194)

Photo credit: Sarah Rice

Erik Vance (@erikvance) is an award-winning science writer based in California and Mexico City. After working as a scientist on research projects dealing with dolphin intelligence and coastal ecology, he became an educator and then an environmental consultant. In 2005, he attended UC Santa Cruz’s famed Science Communication Program and discovered a passion for journalism. Since then, he has built his career around science-based profiles of inspiring or controversial figures. His work has appeared in Harper’s Magazine, The New York Times, The Utne Reader, Scientific American, and National Geographic. He is also a contributing editor at Discover Magazine.

His latest book is Suggestible You: The Curious Science of Your Brain’s Ability to Deceive, Transform, and Heal. This riveting narrative explores the world of placebos, hypnosis, false memories, and neurology to reveal the groundbreaking science of our suggestible minds. Could the secrets to personal health lie within our own brains?  Erik’s firsthand dispatches will change the way you think — and feel.

In this episode, we cover many topics — with equal amounts of the profound, actionable, and hilarious:

  • The power of placebo, and how you can increase the odds of it working for you (if you choose).
  • Which conditions respond well to placebo, and which do not.
  • How the mind, religion, bedside manner, and peer pressure can influence medical outcomes.
  • Finding and studying a pig shit sommelier.
  • Why he got electrocuted for half an hour at the NIH laboratories in Bethesda, Maryland.
  • The story of why he chose to be cursed by a witch doctor in Mexico City.

If you only have 5 minutes, listen to Erik’s story on catching porcupines in South Africa. This alone will make you laugh out loud and is worth the episode.

Please enjoy!

#194: The Magic and Power of Placebo

Want to hear an episode about brain optimization? — Listen to this interview with Adam Gazzaley, M.D, Ph.D. In this episode, we discuss neuroplasticity, how to enhance cognitive abilities, the best smart drugs, and much, much more (stream below or right-click here to download):

#83: The Maverick of Brain Optimization

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QUESTION(S) OF THE DAY: What was your favorite quote or lesson from this episode? Please let me know in the comments.

Scroll below for links and show notes…

Selected Links from the Episode

  • Connect with Erik Vance:

Twitter | Erik’s Website | Suggestible You Website

Show Notes

  • How did Erik Vance wind up living in Mexico City? [06:53]
  • How did Erik get interested in field biology? [07:42]
  • What was the turning point that transformed Erik from pure scientist to science journalist? [10:10]
  • Erik talks about his adventures with a porcupine, a recovering junkie, and a reformed devil worshiper in South Africa. [12:17]
  • Why nature documentaries usually require unnatural preparation. [18:04]
  • Erik talks about striking the balance between scientific precision and entertaining storytelling. [22:37]
  • We talk about story structure, the processes involved with writing a book, and tools for writers. [23:46]
  • Erik talks about one of his first, less-than-glamorous assignments as a new science writer (it involved swine manure and something called ladybug taint). [28:00]
  • Erik talks about growing up as a Christian Scientist — and not going to a doctor until he turned 18. [40:05]
  • Erik’s interest in the placebo effect comes from surviving a serious childhood disease. [44:50]
  • Erik talks about visiting NIH (National Institutes of Health) facilities so he could get repeatedly electrocuted — for science! [45:45]
  • The placebo effect isn’t always in your head — you may legitimately be experiencing measurable biochemical reactions. [49:06]
  • The power of nocebos: we talk about zombies, witches, and curses. [50:12]
  • Erik talks about getting cursed. [1:03:00]
  • Is there evidence to suggest that “real” drugs can fail to treat an ailment if the patient believes they’re being given a placebo? [1:10:03]
  • Parkinson’s disease seems to respond well to placebo, whereas Alzheimer’s disease does not. Why? [1:14:37]
  • How do we avoid feeling deceptive when we try to help loved ones with the use of placebos? [1:19:16]
  • Sham surgeries are a real thing. [1:20:39]
  • How does a rational scientist approach belief in placebo treatments? [1:23:35]
  • There is growing evidence that placebo-responding expectations can become permanent. [1:26:20]
  • Are some people more genetically susceptible to the placebo effect than others? [1:27:35]
  • What other conditions seem to respond well to placebo? [1:30:40]
  • How might someone maximize the effectiveness of a placebo pill? [1:31:25]
  • How does Erik now use what he learned about placebo during the course of writing Suggestible You? [1:33:49]
  • Different colors and sizes of placebo pills work better to treat certain ailments. [1:36:34]


The Tim Ferriss Show is one of the most popular podcasts in the world with more than 900 million downloads. It has been selected for "Best of Apple Podcasts" three times, it is often the #1 interview podcast across all of Apple Podcasts, and it's been ranked #1 out of 400,000+ podcasts on many occasions. To listen to any of the past episodes for free, check out this page.

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30 Replies to “The Magic and Power of Placebo (#194)”

  1. From my Promethease report selecting COMT gene for those wanting to check for themselves. Guess I’ll return my Pez cutting device.


    (warrior) multiple associations, see details You have the VAL/VAL version of the snp discussed in this news article. It is able to perform better in a test where the optimal strategy changes. Placebo is less effective for you

    1. Thank you Mark, this extends the valuable information shared in the podcast. As I study how to use biofeedback as a leading tool to use the cues of stress to improve performance, this article outlines numerous studies proving this capacity is available to all of us.

  2. This is fantastic information! But please do not forget that this isn’t groundbreaking. Humans have been using this and studying this for a very, very long time; the literature is long, deep, and available.

    Try not to forsake thousands of years of human history because they didn’t have the same processes as we’ve decided to use today. They were just as intelligent, and perceptive. Our own lives and era would improve more rapidly if we had a bit more regard for what came before us.

    Of course one must use whatever standard of proof that works for oneself. But to say our current way is the most sure way to know something betrays arrogance and presumption. It also slows us way down. Most importantly it shows we are making the same mistake as history clearly tells us: We have the way. You don’t. I think we’ve all understood how well that has worked.

    Let’s all learn on good people!

  3. That was a sweet one. Erik Vance has an aura of humility, humour and intelligence that is so charming. I laughed like crazy. A not-so-new subject discussed in an hilarious manner that makes it feel like new. Great food for thoughts. I can never get tired of subjects that make me revisit my own perceptives. Thank you.

  4. Placebos!,

    I take one daily!

    Coffee? Weed? No need.

    Placebos are 100x better! Potent and free!

    After searching around, I found the most effective..

    was not yellow, or green,

    it turned out to be the one that’s Un-seen?

    Invisible placebos rock!

    Thank you Tim, another great podcast!

  5. Good episode. It always amazes me how powerful our brains can be, even if not always under our conscious control.

    Tim, you mentioned having chronic back pain and how you’ve helped alleviate that through working with Coach Sommer. Have you documented the exercises that helped or do you have any plans on doing so? I’ve tried all manner of solutions, worked with doctors, physical therapists, chiropractors and the pain persists. Would love it if you could do put something up on youtube about the exercises you used to help with the problem. Thanks for everything.

  6. One of my favorite subjects!

    Have you read Biology of Belief by Bruce H. Lipton Tim?

    Bruce Lipton was on Dave Asprey’s podcast – they went into discussion of the science behind belief, placebo/nocebo – I loved that one too and read and reviewed book after.

    On that podcast Bruce Lipton was saying that Placebo works because the mind interprets our strong beliefs as our environment and responds by controlling our biology accordingly to make us adapt better to conditions.

    The mind has no way to actually “know” what is our true environment so it relies on what we know or believe in, transmitted into the mind through different sequences of electrical signals. True, not true – the mind has no way to confirm either, if we believe we see a ghost, the mind will see it. If we believe something causes our body to heal, the mind again has no choice but to respond accordingly.

    After all even drugs are nothing more than a set of signals transmitted on a molecular level.

    But there were experiments that electrical and magnetic frequencies (that what our thoughts, beliefs and feelings are) have a stronger/direct effect than molecular signaling (that what drugs and physical therapy is).

    Great episode! Thank you Tim!

    1. I loved Bruce Lipton’s explanation! Ever since I read that, nothing has made more sense. It’s like everything we perceive as physical is a dog&pony show, a way for us to justify and demonstrate our beliefs, instead of the source of those beliefs.

      Loved the ep!

      1. I love Bruce Lipton as well. Joe Dispenza is another great source of leading edge information on the placebo effect, with a book called “You Are The Placebo.”

  7. Another great guest that I hadn’t heard of. As someone who works in the rehab/human performance game it’s fascinating to see how the emerging neuroscience is changing a lot of what we, as physios were taught.

    Along these lines: The NeuroOrthopedic Inst. (

    is another resource worth looking into for those interested.


  8. Are you aware that people are pissed about the version of the four hour body that is available on Audible? I was going to purchase it today but after reading comment after comment about how A) the abridgment is horribly done and doesn’t include information clearly stated in the description section and B) Audible doesn’t clearly state that it is an abridged version at all, I won’t be buying it today. The good ol’ American lifestyle has me working too hard to read a book so hopefully a decent unabridged version is on the horizon! P.S. Thank for being awesome.

  9. Hey Tim, Here’s a tip that will help you drive more traffic.

    You should release the 5min tidbits of your podcast on your youtube channel, and link it back to your podcast.

    If this helped, please give me a shoutout haha~

    I am a wannabe youtuber, and would love some help~



  10. Great episode. I think the power of expectation you get into near the end points towards a pretty profound truth: that we are able to affect outcomes with our thoughts. I would guess that many of the conclusions we’ve come to as a society are the result of the same process. Conditioning expectation is powerful. Thanks for reminding me of this simple truth!

  11. Hello Tim! Congratulations that you have 1000 messages a day!!! I bet you never imagined that when Michael connected you to your agent/publisher! You know the gentleman that gave me the E-Myth Revisted in 1996 didn’t tell me I was about to marry the Dude! Life is great and would love to connect as you would love what Mr Gerber has created at 80! Love and Gratitude,

    Luz Delia Gerber

  12. Before pondering about the last two podcast again – and I leave the question related to the other podcast there – I need to know if I understood it right.

    It´s about the expectation of your brain, but you can´t change the biological reaction e.g. the firewalk. You change the expectations of your brain how you feel pain – BUT – if you would not run, just stay on the coals you would have the physical damage burn feet.

    So all the stuff you could change, by changing the expactions of your brain, are changing chemical interactions inside your body? Did I understand this right?

    I read a book “Darm mit Charme” – where the author have the thesis that the gut is not controlled by the brain, but by it´s one “brain system”. Quiete amazing 🙂 – She shows that the gut has a lot more influence on your overall health as most people thought it had. Have you looked at this in the sense of the Placebo Effect? As the “gut-brain” overruled the brain sometimes?

  13. As a certified hypnotherapist, I loved this episode. It made be happy to hear that mainstream science is learning that the power of belief is what controls our lives. When you control your beliefs, you control your entire world.

  14. I would put Erik Vance in the top three speakers I’ve heard hosted on this gem of a website. His authenticity and enthusiasm, and his ability to paint pictures of what he’s saying through the words he chooses to describe them, work together to fully engage the listener – this one, at any rate.

  15. Before pondering about the last two podcast again. I need to know if I understood it right.

    It´s about the expectation of your brain, but you can´t change the biological reaction e.g. the firewalk. You change the expectations of your brain how you feel pain – BUT – if you would not run, just stay on the coals you would have the physical damage burn feet.

    So all the stuff you could change, by changing the expactions of your brain, are changing chemical interactions inside your body? Did I understand this right?

    I read a book “Darm mit Charme” – where the author have the thesis that the gut is not controlled by the brain, but by it´s one “brain system”. Quiete amazing🙂 – She shows that the gut has a lot more influence on your overall health as most people thought it had. Have you looked at this in the sense of the Placebo Effect? As the “gut-brain” overruled the brain sometimes?

  16. Tim,

    Unrelated to this blog post, I have a question for you. How did you begin to incorporate change in your life? How do you determine what to incorporate? I am at a point in my life where I want to make change- change in my diet, change in my eating, change in my work habits. What do you recommend?

  17. Thanks Tim and Erik, excellent interview! In the same spirit I developed a placebo brand and product. Called it Zeebo Effect. Check it out and share your feedback with me. Thanks!

  18. Can’t find that he mentioned in these show notes. Nor can I find it in the web. Any suggestions or lead to that?

  19. Can anyone provide additional info on using genetic reports (eg. 23 and me) to find out about the genes mentioned in this episode and how they’re expressed in me?

  20. On the question of why placebo’s work despite you knowing it is a placebo, I have been wondering this same thing for a long time. I think there is something in the philosophy of mind of Daniel Dennett, specifically his “Multiple Drafts Model” described in his book “Consciousness Explained”. Anyone who is interested should have a look.

  21. Active placebo for acupuncture.

    Are you familiar with the veterinary acupuncturists who are taught and use “transpositional” points? That is points from the bipedal human (those active placebo points) put onto quadraped animals…..

  22. Oxford dictionary has redefined the meaning of the word fascinating.

    New definition/meaning. Tim Ferriss podcasts; Fascinating.

  23. Hi Tim!

    Have you listened to Deepak Chopra on Tony Robbins’ podcast on July 5th? They talk about this idea, but in a metaphysical sense as well. It’s amazing. If you’re curious about the placebo effect and if It could help you at all, I think it would give you a nice sigh of relief. (also, I feel like you would have a lot of resources to test Dr. Chopra’s studies).

    I hope you’ll listen. Had my hyper logical boyfriend listen to the episode and it actual got his skeptical (dare I say cynical) mind thinking about the possibilities.

    I would love to hear what you think about that episode.

  24. One Word: Fascinating! I realize that is a somewhat trite description for so many of your “experiments of one” and the people who provide fodder for them, but it is still true. Good stuff, from both of you.

  25. I didn’t think I would enjoy this topic much and it took my a bit to get into the conversation but once the story went to the placebo effect and the power of the mind I was hooked. This episode is incredible and has so many points that all people can benefit from.

    Thank you for continuing to put out amazing, inspiring and thought provoking work.