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.
- Listen to it on iTunes.
- Stream by clicking here.
- Download as an MP3 by right-clicking here and choosing “save as.”
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):
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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:
- Suggestible You: The Curious Science of Your Brain’s Ability to Deceive, Transform, and Heal by Erik Vance
- The Foreign Science Correspondent: Erik Vance on Living and Working in Mexico City by Robin Mejia, The Science Writers’ Handbook
- Zoobooks Magazine — one of Erik’s childhood inspirations
- The Power of One
- Cry the Beloved Porcupine by Erik Vance
- UC Santa Cruz Science Communication Program
- Narrative X-Rays: Looking at Stories’ Structural Skeletons by Julia Rosen, The Open Notebook
- Erik Vance: “Scientists Are Quirky Everywhere”, Nieman Storyboard
- The Chronicle of Higher Education wouldn’t let Erik title one of his first stories “Stinky Ladybug Taint.” (It opted for this, instead.)
- Profile: What is That Smell? by Erik Vance, Nature
- What is Christian Science?
- National Institutes of Health (NIH)
- Power of the Placebo by Erik Vance, Discover
- The Serpent and the Rainbow: book by Wade Davis, movie by Wes Craven
- Mercado de Sonora
- Post hoc ergo propter hoc (after this, therefore because of this)
- The Kennedy Curse, True Conspiracy
- Healing Back Pain: The Mind-Body Connection by John E. Sarno
- The Power of the Placebo, Susan Perry, Brainfacts.org
- Placebo Surgery: More Effective Than You Think? by David H. Newman, M.D., The Huffington Post
- Is the Placebo Effect in Some People’s Genes? by Lisa Rapaport, Reuters
- Multitasking Gene May Help Drone Operators Control Robotic Swarms by Jeremy Hsu, Scientific American
- Evolution Could Explain the Placebo Effect by Colin Barras, New Scientist
- 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]
- Yogi Berra
- John McPhee
- Burkhard Bilger
- Mickey Mantle
- Jacek Koziel
- Luana Colloca
- George F. Cahill, Jr.
- Christopher Sommer
- Richard Feynman
- Peter Attia
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