Placebo acupuncture as a form of ritual touch healing: a neurophenomenological model

Conscious Cogn. 2011 Sep;20(3):784-91. doi: 10.1016/j.concog.2010.12.009. Epub 2011 Mar 11.


Evidence that placebo acupuncture is an effective treatment for chronic pain presents a puzzle: how do placebo needles appearing to patients to penetrate the body, but instead sitting on the skin's surface in the manner of a tactile stimulus, evoke a healing response? Previous accounts of ritual touch healing in which patients often described enhanced touch sensations (including warmth, tingling or flowing sensations) suggest an embodied healing mechanism. In this qualitative study, we asked a subset of patients in a singleblind randomized trial in irritable bowel syndrome to describe their treatment experiences while undergoing placebo treament. Analysis focused on patients' unprompted descriptions of any enhanced touch sensations (e.g., warmth, tingling) and any significance patients assigned to the sensations. We found in 5/6 cases, patients associated sensations including "warmth" and "tingling" with treatment efficacy. The conclusion offers a "neurophenomenological" account of the placebo effect by considering dynamic effects of attentional filtering on early sensory cortices, possibly underlying the phenomenology of placebo acupuncture.

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Acupuncture Therapy / psychology*
  • Adult
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Interviews as Topic
  • Irritable Bowel Syndrome / psychology
  • Irritable Bowel Syndrome / therapy
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Pain / psychology
  • Pain Management / methods
  • Placebos / therapeutic use*
  • Sensation
  • Therapeutic Touch / methods*
  • Touch Perception


  • Placebos