In 1941 Walt Disney Studios released the animated film, Dumbo. In it, a floppy-eared baby elephant turned his biggest flaw into his greatest asset when a friend gave him a magic feather. Dumbo believed the feather would allow him to fly if he held it in his trunk and flapped his over-sized ears. It worked. The belief he could do it was strong enough to make it happen. Today, Dumbo may be the world's most well-known beneficiary of the placebo effect.
In a lab at McGill University in Montreal, Dr.Amir Raz conducts experiments on the human brain. More specifically, he studies the brain's ability to make the body to react, simply because the brain is convinced it should do so. Recently, he invited university students to his lab and told them the purpose of the experiment was to study the effects of alcohol on brain activity. He had a bartender prepare several mixed drinks for each participant, complete with ice, straws and fruit slices, then scanned their brains as they drank. The scans showed a fairly low level of brain activity at the beginning of the test, but as the students drank more, that activity began to light up the screen. Their brains were processing the idea that they were consuming several alcoholic drinks, and told their bodies to react accordingly. After four drinks, the students were slurring their speech, having difficulty walking a straight line and giggling. At that point, Dr.Raz sat them down and questioned them about the way they felt. The students said they felt a bit dizzy and happy. They looked and acted drunk.
Then, Dr.Raz told the students the drinks had contained only water. The participants' resposes were remarkable. The minute they processed the new information, their drunk symptoms disappeared and they seemed a bit bewildered that they'd felt that way without consuming any alcohol. The experiment confirmed Dr.Raz's theory that the brain, given the right stimuli...even a false belief...will convince the body to produce the appropriate behaviour. He's not the only one discovering similar results about the power of the brain.
At Harvard University, Dr.Ted Kaptchuk heads up the Placebo Studies program in the school of medicine. He recently tested 270 people dealing with chronic arm pain. He gave half the patients pain-reducing pills, and the other half had acupuncture treatments. He warned them they could experience possible side effects.Within days, some of the patients were calling in to say the pills stole all their energy away, and the needles caused swelling and pain at the injection sites, just as they'd been told might happen. The majority of the subjects, however, called in to say the treatments were working and their pain was either reduced or cured. Both reactions were amazing because the pills were made of nothing but corn starch, and the needles were retractable and never actually punctured the skin. Still, there was no denying the redness and swelling at the alleged injection sites in those who expected side effects and whose brains then produced them. And there was no medical explanation for those who felt better after the fake treatments.
This powerful placebo effect, which many scientists like Raz and Kaptchuk are studying right now, could have significant applications in the world of sports. Researchers first began to consider the idea in the 1970s, with a study of superstition in sport. They discovered some of the best performers in high level athletics were those who firmly believed a particular t-shirt worn underneath a jersey, or a particular game-day routine was essential to how they fared on the court or field. Those results were a curiosity, but not considered a usable strategy for athletes or coaches. In recent years, however, examination of the placebo effect in elite sport performance is really taking off.
In 2011, Hungarian scientists conducted an interesting study of high-level athletes. They gave some of the group small pills and others larger pills the athletes were told would improve their performance (legally.) Those who took the large pills saw a measurably greater improvement in performance than those who'd taken smaller pills. In another experiment, the researchers gave part of the group a green drink and others a red drink, also supposed to be performance boosters. The group who took the green drink did better.
An interesting note in the Hungarian study is the athletes were from various sports, and they were measured against their own previous results. Those who participated in strength-based activities like weight-lifting saw a more marked improvement in performance than those in endurance activities like long-distance running, which would seem to indicate a reduction in the power of the placebo effect over time. In subsequent tests, without the pills or sports drinks, the results weren't as good in either group.
Also part of this study were medical reports from coaches and doctors. Some athletes were told their bodies were in phenomenal shape and they should be able to achieve a particular result. Others were told their oxygen levels were lower than usual. In more than half the cases, the athletes responded exactly as they would be expected to, if the medical reports were real. (They weren't, of course.) Nine out of 12 cyclists studied showed dramatic improvement when told they were in top shape.
In the NHL's age of parity, any advantage a team can muster should be used to gain an edge. Considering the proven power of the placebo effect, it could conceivably make the difference between a close win or a loss. Take the Canadiens, for example: The same group of players can perform like world beaters in shutting down the Cup-champion Blackhawks one night, then look like an outclassed Junior B squad in getting owned by the struggling Capitals a week later, as they did back in January. The question that drives everyone nuts is why consistency is such a hard standard to achieve.
Some will point to health, scheduling, motivation and intangibles like chemistry between players. All of those things certainly play a role in how a team performs, but since science is proving their actual belief in whether they can win could play a significant part as well, teams need to pay more attention to it. If Lars Eller can take a pill or a green drink he thinks will improve his ability to find the net, the Habs need to give it to him. If Rene Bourque can swallow a gel he believes will increase his energy level, bring it on.
The regular NHL season is a long grind, and even a placebo effect might not work every night. The playoffs, though, are different. That's when words like "belief," "magic," and "intensity" are flying around and players are more inclined to believe in anything they think will push them ahead of their opponent. Back in 1993, the Habs lost their first two games against the Nordiques and hope was waning. Coach Jacques Demers told the players he didn't think they'd come back...he knew it. Something in that speech spoke to athletes who wanted a reason to believe they would win, and they did.
The Canadiens today are a middle-of-the-road team with some good pieces and a lot of deadwood. They aren't contenders on paper, but sometimes all it takes is a good friend with a feather to make you believe you can fly. If they can harness the placebo effect and turn it to their benefit, you never know what might happen. Science says a little belief can go a long way.