TEDMED 2009

Eric Mead: The magic of the placebo

Filmed:

Sugar pills, injections of nothing -- studies show that, more often than you'd expect, placebos really work. At TEDMED, magician Eric Mead does a trick to prove that, even when you know something's not real, you can still react as powerfully as if it is. (Warning: This talk is not suitable for viewers who are disturbed by needles or blood.)

- Magician
Eric Mead is a prolific magician, mentalist and comedian who worked his way up from doing magic on the street to appearing at exclusive events around the world. Full bio

For some time I have been interested in
00:18
the placebo effect,
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which might seem like an odd thing
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for a magician to be interested in,
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unless you think of it in the terms that I do,
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which is, "Something fake
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is believed in enough by somebody
00:32
that it becomes something real."
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In other words, sugar pills
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have a measurable effect in certain kinds of studies,
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the placebo effect,
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just because the person thinks
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that what's happening to them is a pharmaceutical
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or some sort of a --
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for pain management, for example,
00:51
if they believe it enough there is a measurable effect in the body
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called the placebo effect.
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Something fake becomes
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something real
00:59
because of someone's perception of it.
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In order for us to understand each other,
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I want to start by showing you a rudimentary,
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very simple magic trick.
01:08
And I'm going to show you how it works. This is a trick
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that's been in every children's magic book since at least the 1950s.
01:12
I learned it myself from Cub Scout Magic in the 1970s.
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I'll do it for you, and then I'll explain it.
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And then I'll explain why I explained it.
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So, here's what happens.
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The knife, which you can examine; my hand, which you could examine.
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I'm just going to hold the knife in my fist like this.
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I'll get my sleeve back.
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And to make sure nothing goes up or down my sleeve
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I'm just going to squeeze my wrist right here.
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That way you can see that at no time
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can anything travel, as long as I'm squeezing there
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nothing can go up or down my sleeve.
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And the object of this is quite simple.
01:46
I'm going to open my hand,
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and hopefully, if all is well,
01:51
my pure animal magnetism will hold the knife.
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In fact it's held so tightly in place
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that I can shake it,
01:59
and the knife does not come off.
02:01
Nothing goes up or down my sleeve,
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no trickery. And you can examine everything.
02:06
Ta-da!
02:09
(Applause)
02:11
So, this is a trick that I often teach to young children
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that are interested in magic, because you can learn
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a great deal about deception by studying
02:18
this very -- even though it's a very simple trick methodologically.
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Probably many of you in the room know this trick.
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What happens is this.
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I hold the knife in my hand.
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I say I'm going to grab hold of my wrist
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to make sure nothing goes up or down my sleeve,
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that is a lie.
02:33
The reason I'm holding onto my wrist
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is because that's actually the secret
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of the illusion.
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In a moment when my hand moves from facing you
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to being away from you,
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this finger right here, my index finger is just going to shift
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from where it is, to a position
02:47
pointing out like this.
02:50
Nice one.
02:52
Someone who didn't have a childhood is out there.
02:54
(Laughter)
02:57
So, it goes like this, from here, right.
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And as I move around my finger shifts.
03:01
And we could talk about why this is deceptive,
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why you don't notice there are only three fingers down here,
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because the mind, and the way it processes information,
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it doesn't count, one, two, three. It groups them.
03:10
But that's not really what this is about. Right? And then I open my hand up.
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Obviously it's clinging there, not by animal magnetism,
03:15
but by chicanery,
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my index finger being there.
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And then when I close my finger, same thing,
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as I move back, this motion
03:26
kind of covers the moving back of my finger.
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I take this hand away. You give the knife out.
03:30
There is a trick you can do for your friends and neighbors. Thanks.
03:32
Now, (Laughter)
03:36
what does that have to do with the placebo effect?
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I read a study a year or so ago
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that really blew my mind wide open.
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I'm not a doctor or a researcher, so this, to me,
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was an astonishing thing.
03:49
It turns out that if you administer
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a placebo in the form of a white pill,
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that's like aspirin shaped --
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it's just a round white pill -- it has some certain measurable effect.
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But if you change the form that you give the placebo in,
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like you make a smaller pill,
04:04
and color it blue, and stamp a letter into it,
04:06
it is actually measurably more effective.
04:09
Even though neither one of these things
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has any pharmaceutical -- they're sugar pills.
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But a white pill is not as good as a blue pill.
04:17
What? (Laughter) That really flipped me out.
04:21
Turns out though, that that's not even where it stops.
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If you have capsules,
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they're more effective than tablets in any form.
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A colored capsule, that's yellow on one end and red on the other
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is better than a white capsule.
04:34
Dosage has something to do with this.
04:36
One pill twice a day
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is not as good at three pills --
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I don't remember the statistic now. Sorry.
04:43
But the point is ...
04:45
(Laughter) ... these dosages have something to do with it.
04:47
And the form has something to do with it.
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And if you want the ultimate in placebo,
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you've go to the needle.
04:54
Right? A syringe with some inert --
04:57
a couple CCs of some inert something,
04:59
and you inject this into a patient ...
05:01
Well this is such a powerful image in their mind,
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it's so much stronger than the white pill.
05:05
It's a really, this graph, well I'll show it to you
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some other time when we have slides.
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The point is
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the white pill is not as good as the blue pill
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is not as good as the capsule is not as good as the needle.
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And none of it has any real pharmaceutical quality,
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it's only your belief that makes it real
05:23
in your body and makes a stronger effect.
05:27
I wanted to see if I could take that idea
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and apply it to a magic trick.
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And take something that is obviously a fake trick
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and make it seem real.
05:38
And we know from that study
05:43
that when you want reality, you go to the needle.
05:46
This is a seven-inch hatpin. It's very, very sharp,
05:50
and I'm going to just sterilize it a tiny bit.
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This is really my flesh. This is not
06:01
Damian's special-grown flesh.
06:03
That's my skin right there. This is not a Hollywood special effect.
06:05
I'm going to pierce my skin
06:10
and run this needle through to the other side.
06:12
If you're queasy -- (Laughs)
06:14
if you faint easily -- I was doing this for some friends
06:17
in the hotel room last night, and some people that I didn't know,
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and one woman almost passed out.
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So, I suggest if you get queasy easy
06:24
that you look away for about the next 30 --
06:27
in fact, you know what, I'll do the first bad part behind it.
06:29
You'll get to see, you can look away too if you'd like to.
06:31
So, here is what happens, right here,
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the beginning of my flesh
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at the lower part of my arm I just make
06:39
a little pierce.
06:41
I'm sorry, man. Am I freaking you out?
06:43
OK, and then just through my skin a tiny bit,
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and then out the other side like this.
06:49
Now, essentially we're in the same position we were in
06:52
with the knife trick.
06:56
(Laughter)
06:58
Sort of.
07:02
But you can't count my fingers right now can you?
07:04
So, let me show them to you. That's one, two
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three, four, five.
07:09
Yes, well...
07:12
I know what people think when they see this.
07:15
They go, "Well, he's certainly not dumb enough
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to stab himself through the skin to entertain us for a few minutes.
07:19
So, let me give you a little peek.
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How's that look out there? Pretty good.
07:25
(Laughs)
07:27
Yeah, I know. (Laughs)
07:30
And the people in the back go, "OK, I didn't really see that."
07:33
People in the satellite room are starting to move in now.
07:35
Let me give you good close look at this.
07:38
That really is my skin. That is not a Hollywood special effect.
07:40
That's my flesh, and I can twist that around.
07:43
I'm sorry. If you're getting queasy, look away,
07:46
don't look at the thing.
07:48
People in the back or people on video years from now watching this
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will go, "Well yeah, that looks kind of neat
07:52
in some sort of effect there, but if it were real he would be --
07:55
see there's a hole there and a hole there, if it were real he would be bleeding.
07:58
Well let me work up some blood for you.
08:01
(Laughter)
08:04
Yes, there it is.
08:09
(Applause)
08:11
(Laughter)
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Normally now, I would take the needle out.
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I would clean off my arm, and I would show you that there are no wounds.
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But I think in this context
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and with the idea of taking something fake
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and making it into something real,
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I'm just going to leave it there,
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and walk off the stage.
08:46
(Laughter)
08:48
I will be seeing you several times over the next few days.
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I hope you're looking forward to that. Thank you very much.
08:53
(Laughter)
08:56
(Applause)
08:58

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About the Speaker:

Eric Mead - Magician
Eric Mead is a prolific magician, mentalist and comedian who worked his way up from doing magic on the street to appearing at exclusive events around the world.

Why you should listen

As a child, Eric Mead says that he had a typical interest in magic. However, by the time he was a teenager, his interest had grown to a full-fledged obsession -- he was getting paid to do birthday parties and banquets in his hometown. He began street performing in 1985 and four years later was offered a job as “Magic Bartender” at the Tower Comedy/Magic Bar owned by John Denver. Working at the bar, as well as private parties and comedy clubs, he became well-known in the industry and went on to perform one of the most memorable pieces in The Aristocrats.

Mead is also known as the author of Tangled Web, a collection of magic and mentalism taken from his personal repertoire.

More profile about the speaker
Eric Mead | Speaker | TED.com