More Scientific Proof of the Power of Suggestion
by Charles E. Henderson, Ph.D.


The woman had suffered from acute bouts of depression for 30 years when she saw a newspaper ad looking for subjects for an antidepressant study to be conducted by the Neuropsychiatric Institute of UCLA. She applied to be a participant and was accepted into the research program.

She went to the institute at the appointed time where she was prepared for participation with interviews and a 45 minute session on an electroencephalograph to record her brain activity. When she left she had a bottle of pills she was to take. She was excited and couldn't wait to get started taking them.

The woman, who was at that time a 46-year-old interior designer, got dramatically better within a couple of weeks. Her bouts of depression had disappeared and she no longer felt worthless (she had at one time seriously considered suicide). She was functioning at a higher level, and feeling better, than she had in years.

For two months she went to the institute weekly for interviews, tests, and EEGs to record her progress. At the end of the study she was a different person. She attributed her nearly miraculous recovery to the new antidepressant drug which was the subject of the study. It was venlafaxine, better known as Effexor.

But on her final visit she received a stunning shock: She was told that she had not been taking medicine at all, but a placebo. Both she and the nurse who had shepherded her through the research had known that half the research subjects were getting placebos. Yet neither of them thought she could have been in the placebo group because her improvement had been so dramatic. She had even experienced nausea, a common side effect of Effexor.

She was incredulous and insisted that they re-check the records. There was no question about it. She had been taking nothing but sugar pills. Her dramatic improvement could not have been the result of the pills she was taking because sugar pills are pharmacologically inert.

This woman's experience was by no means unusual. In my own professional life I have conducted many research projects in which placeboes were employed. There almost always are subjects who have experienced amazing changes on nothing but placebo. When advised of this they inevitably find it very hard to believe.

For some reason they feel diminished if the changes were the result of "mere suggestion." Yet they should embrace suggestion for the power it has to make amazing transformations in oneself.

Suggestion delivers on its promise – drugs often do not. (Not, at least, on the promises the drug companies make for them.) Those of us in the helping professions have known for a long time that any antidepressant has only a fifty-fifty chance of working for any given person. You wouldn't know this, of course, from all the advertising the pharmaceutical companies do. In fact, saying that one of these medicines has a fifty percent chance of working might be too optimistic.

What most patients and clinicians alike don't know is that in the 47 trials used by the FDA to approve the six leading antidepressants on the market, more than half were unable to outperform sugar pills. Placeboes gave better results than the medicines!

Even in those cases where antidepressants outperformed placeboes, the differences were slight. You are not going to hear about this, of course, because the drug companies can't make their accustomed outrageous profits from sugar pills. And it is likely that the demand for antidepressants would seriously diminish if all the facts of their research were widely known.

In the case of antidepressants we probably would not know about the research results at all were it not for Professor Irving Kirsch (psychologist, University of Connecticut) and his co-authors. They used the Freedom of Information Act to force the FDA to give them the data from the research trials.

The logical conclusion is clear: It is ingenious (and often devious) advertising, not chemistry, that is luring millions of people into spending billions of dollars on medicines that are no more effective - and often less effective - than suggestion! In addition, the users of these heavily prescribed antidepressant run the risk of suffering serious side effects. We are just now learning (!) that antidepressants not only cause some children and teenagers to become suicidal but most have also failed to cure their depression (Zoloft and Prozac are two of the more heavily prescribed drugs in question).

Such problems do not accompany the use of suggestion.

It would be unwise and unethical for me to recommend that everyone throw away their antidepressants and work with suggestion instead. There are undoubtedly people who benefit greatly from antidepressants, and who might respond to them much better than they would to suggestion.

But what I do recommend is that patients who take antidepressants try suggestion in addition to their physician-prescribed drugs. Some patients find they can get along on less of the drug. And some discover they can do without antidepressants altogether.