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TEDMED 2009

Eric Mead: The magic of the placebo

Filmed
Views 1,033,025

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,
00:20
which might seem like an odd thing
00:22
for a magician to be interested in,
00:24
unless you think of it in the terms that I do,
00:26
which is, "Something fake
00:28
is believed in enough by somebody
00:32
that it becomes something real."
00:34
In other words, sugar pills
00:36
have a measurable effect in certain kinds of studies,
00:38
the placebo effect,
00:41
just because the person thinks
00:43
that what's happening to them is a pharmaceutical
00:46
or some sort of a --
00:48
for pain management, for example,
00:51
if they believe it enough there is a measurable effect in the body
00:53
called the placebo effect.
00:55
Something fake becomes
00:57
something real
00:59
because of someone's perception of it.
01:01
In order for us to understand each other,
01:04
I want to start by showing you a rudimentary,
01:06
very simple magic trick.
01:08
And I'm going to show you how it works. This is a trick
01:10
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.
01:16
I'll do it for you, and then I'll explain it.
01:20
And then I'll explain why I explained it.
01:22
So, here's what happens.
01:25
The knife, which you can examine; my hand, which you could examine.
01:27
I'm just going to hold the knife in my fist like this.
01:29
I'll get my sleeve back.
01:32
And to make sure nothing goes up or down my sleeve
01:34
I'm just going to squeeze my wrist right here.
01:36
That way you can see that at no time
01:39
can anything travel, as long as I'm squeezing there
01:41
nothing can go up or down my sleeve.
01:43
And the object of this is quite simple.
01:46
I'm going to open my hand,
01:48
and hopefully, if all is well,
01:51
my pure animal magnetism will hold the knife.
01:54
In fact it's held so tightly in place
01:57
that I can shake it,
01:59
and the knife does not come off.
02:01
Nothing goes up or down my sleeve,
02:04
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
02:13
that are interested in magic, because you can learn
02:16
a great deal about deception by studying
02:18
this very -- even though it's a very simple trick methodologically.
02:20
Probably many of you in the room know this trick.
02:23
What happens is this.
02:25
I hold the knife in my hand.
02:27
I say I'm going to grab hold of my wrist
02:29
to make sure nothing goes up or down my sleeve,
02:31
that is a lie.
02:33
The reason I'm holding onto my wrist
02:35
is because that's actually the secret
02:37
of the illusion.
02:39
In a moment when my hand moves from facing you
02:41
to being away from you,
02:43
this finger right here, my index finger is just going to shift
02:45
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.
02:59
And as I move around my finger shifts.
03:01
And we could talk about why this is deceptive,
03:03
why you don't notice there are only three fingers down here,
03:05
because the mind, and the way it processes information,
03:08
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.
03:13
Obviously it's clinging there, not by animal magnetism,
03:15
but by chicanery,
03:19
my index finger being there.
03:21
And then when I close my finger, same thing,
03:24
as I move back, this motion
03:26
kind of covers the moving back of my finger.
03:28
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?
03:38
I read a study a year or so ago
03:41
that really blew my mind wide open.
03:44
I'm not a doctor or a researcher, so this, to me,
03:47
was an astonishing thing.
03:49
It turns out that if you administer
03:51
a placebo in the form of a white pill,
03:53
that's like aspirin shaped --
03:55
it's just a round white pill -- it has some certain measurable effect.
03:58
But if you change the form that you give the placebo in,
04:01
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
04:12
has any pharmaceutical -- they're sugar pills.
04:14
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.
04:24
If you have capsules,
04:26
they're more effective than tablets in any form.
04:29
A colored capsule, that's yellow on one end and red on the other
04:31
is better than a white capsule.
04:34
Dosage has something to do with this.
04:36
One pill twice a day
04:38
is not as good at three pills --
04:40
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.
04:49
And if you want the ultimate in placebo,
04:51
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,
05:03
it's so much stronger than the white pill.
05:05
It's a really, this graph, well I'll show it to you
05:07
some other time when we have slides.
05:10
The point is
05:12
the white pill is not as good as the blue pill
05:14
is not as good as the capsule is not as good as the needle.
05:17
And none of it has any real pharmaceutical quality,
05:20
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
05:30
and apply it to a magic trick.
05:32
And take something that is obviously a fake trick
05:34
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.
05:54
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,
06:19
and one woman almost passed out.
06:22
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,
06:35
the beginning of my flesh
06:37
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,
06:45
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
07:07
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
07:17
to stab himself through the skin to entertain us for a few minutes.
07:19
So, let me give you a little peek.
07:22
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
07:50
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)
08:27
Normally now, I would take the needle out.
08:30
I would clean off my arm, and I would show you that there are no wounds.
08:33
But I think in this context
08:36
and with the idea of taking something fake
08:39
and making it into something real,
08:41
I'm just going to leave it there,
08:44
and walk off the stage.
08:46
(Laughter)
08:48
I will be seeing you several times over the next few days.
08:50
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