Small safe experiments and ‘contextual healing’ (or placebos).

Much has been written in medical science about placebos and I comment on placebo’ here;  it is a strange phenomenon that sees people with well-established medical conditions, e.g. pain,  ‘get better’ without medicine.

The placebo effect is a psycho-biological phenomenon. Little is understood about it and it seems to arise from a number of different mechanisms. These include our own expectations – sometimes, if we expect to improve, we can. Also, there are matters relating to how we learn to be in good health. We are not always aware of how we learn and adapt.

Therefore, there is not a single placebo effect, but many. This is a complication; medical science can appear to offer effective treatment, seemingly,  by ‘doing nothing’! The tricky word here is ‘nothing’. and there is a whole book that provides some fun reading!

The placebo feature is a big topic in its own right and curious folk might want to look at. One starting point might be:,   or

From my point of view, the small safe experiment can provide both clear and present results as well as less easily understood ones. For that reason, I speak of ‘small victories’ – when the result is clear and helpful, as well as ‘small defeats’ when the results are unclear and discomforting.

Both are essential to making changes.

The small, safe experiment can be ‘context healing’ in action.

Your actions bring change, one way or another, and you did it. You make change by taking actions within your own world – not mine, not your doctor’s or your parent’s or your children’s – but within your own life, as you understand it.

This notion of “contextual healing”; was a phrase used by two researchers.

So what is ‘contextual healing’?

In an article, published in the early 2000’s,  Miller and Kaptchuk say the idea of ‘placebo’ should be ditched. They suggest that doctors and researchers should think in terms of “contextual healing” –  an aspect of healing produced, activated or enhanced by the context of the clinical encounter, rather than by the specific treatment given.  Healing resulting from the clinical encounter arises from interactions between the treater-and- treated. Those interactions, alone,  can improve the condition of the treated – and, indeed, possibly the treater. Many people I have met have added much to my life.

Such healing, activated by that encounter, is distinct from healing that arises from specific treatments, a prescription for tablets or physical manipulations. Elsewhere on this web site I have emphasised how the relationship between treater-and-treated is more important than the ‘medicine’ that is on offer.

How might ‘placebos’ help you design your own safe experiments? Much depends on our belief in self and the positive outlook you may have about ‘life’. This is tricky, as many of us seek help and support precisely because we are sdoubtful about our levels of self-esteem after life dealt us a number of  bad experiences. However, some of the pages listed below specialise in focusing attention on improving self-esteem.

A sample of small, safe experiments can be found at:

Affirmation work




Getting down to safe experiments

Practical meditation

My suggestions for helping yourself


Return to:


What is a nudge

How to design a safe experiment