This former magician uses the power of suggestions to help heal real-life disorders

As a professional magician, Jay Olson mastered the art of illusion, deception and the power of suggestion. Now, as a PhD student in psychiatry at McGill University, he hopes the skills he's used to entertain people can also be used to heal them.
(Nicola Luksic/CBC)

Jay Olson knows a thing or two about human psychology.

As a former professional magician, he mastered the art of illusion, deception and the power of suggestion.

His biggest show was in front of an audience of 1,200 in Reno, Nevada when he was just 10 years old.

Now, as a PhD student in psychiatry at McGill University, he hopes the skills he's used to entertain people can also be used to heal them.

"Magicians are in a sense psychologists, in that they observe what they see. They come up with hypotheses and hunches, and they kind of test these through performances," he told IDEAS producers Nicola Luksic and Tom Howell.

Several of his experiments take on the air of a magic act: he dons a crisp white lab coat, carries a clipboard and presents himself to research subjects as "Dr." Olson, even though he's not a medical doctor.

He then puts subjects through a series of procedures that appear to be actual medical tests and measure the "patient's" responses. It's a sophisticated examination of the placebo effect to see whether the appearance of particular treatments can produce actual results.

The placebo machine

In one study, Olson places a participant inside an MRI scanner and asks them to pick a number between 10 and 99. But the scanner is inactive.

He then uses elaborate scientific language to tell them the machine can read their brainwaves and influence what number they choose. He calls it a "thought insertion" task.

The subject picks a number, and Olson immediately shows them a clipboard revealing the number the machine had supposedly picked for them. The numbers match. 

(Nicola Luksic/CBC)

The whole exercise was trickery, of course. But participants reported strange sensations — tingling, mild throbbing in their heads — as the machine was supposedly operating.

"One of our participants said that while we were inserting thoughts, she experienced a throbbing migraine. And when we told her it was deception, she reported that her migraine suddenly vanished," said Olson.

Helping children with neurological disorders

In a pilot study, Olson and Samuel Veissière — an assistant professor of psychiatry at McGill — investigated whether the power of suggestion could be used to help children with various neurological disorders.

One participant was 13-year-old Malaya Kiernan. Last year she had a condition known as dermatillomania, or chronic skin-picking. It's often related to anxiety.

"I would pick at it and basically it turned into an open wound. So if you had a cut, usually if you pick at it, it would hurt and you would stop. But for me, it didn't. I had no restraint," she said.

Malaya's mother Anne-Marie Plante is a nurse, and would spend up to two hours a day treating her daughter's infected wounds, which covered her arms and parts of her face.

Malaya Kiernan, left, says a series of sessions with Olson's placebo machine helped her chronic skin-picking which aggravated her eczema. Her mother Anne-Marie Plante contacted Olson after hearing about his research. (Tom Howell/CBC)

Desperate for potential solutions, Plante learned about Olson and Veissière's experimental placebo research. Malaya agreed to give it a shot.

"At first I was confused, because I was just going into the machine and I was like, 'What is this doing?'" she recalled.

"And then after another two sessions, I started to notice you feel more relaxed, calm confident. And I noticed I wasn't picking as often. I didn't have the urge to pick. After a while my eczema started to heal."

Malaya is excited to be able to go outside and play with her friends again.

She no longer needs Olson and Veissière's machine to help control her urges, either. 

Olson said over 90 per cent of the participants' parents reported improvements in their kids' behaviour after their sessions.

The locus of control

The "external locus of control" is a common term in psychology: the belief that an outside force is really in charge of what's going on with us. Veissière says that belief can be harnessed to help patients manage their symptoms.

One example: hospital patients who put their faith in the idea of a knowledgeable medical establishment, which has the power to heal the their problems.

Are placebo experiments misleading?

Placebo research is growing field and for research like Olson's to be approved, it has to pass stringent ethical guidelines.

"One of the most important aspects of making sure your research is ethical is informed consent," said University of Sudbury bioethicist, Rachel Haliburton.

Deception is unethical, she explained, but if a research participant is fully informed on the placebo treatment it is okay.

Jay Olson and Samuel Veissière are studying the placebo effect and whether tricks related to the power of suggestion could be used to treat real-life symptoms of disorders related to anxiety. (Nicola Luksic/CBC)

Little white lies on the part of the therapist administering the placebo treatment might not even be necessary, according to Irving Kirsch, associate director of the Program in Placebo Studies at Harvard Medical School.

"We have found that there are ways in which you can give people placebos and tell them that they are placebos. You can give the placebo treatment honestly and openly and still get the effect," says Kirsch.

Olson makes it clear he isn't actively deceiving children and other research subjects. He tells them explicitly that he is not a real doctor and he is not administering real-life treatments.

You can give people placebos and tell them that they are placebos. You can give the placebo treatment honestly and openly and still get the effect.- Irving Kirsch

"We explain to children a suggestion is like a powerful thought, or powerful words, that can help your own brain heal itself. And we tell them everything you see here is a suggestion. The machine is deactivated," he explained.

"We don't want children to just go home and think that they've been magically fixed by a magical machine. We want them to regain trust in themselves to regain confidence," he said.

Olson hopes his research can lead to more concrete treatments for conditions like ADHD or Tourette syndrome.

"We keep reinforcing the idea that the most important locus of control is their own brain. So we tell them it's really your own brain that is doing this."

Guests in this episode:

  • Jay Olson is a PhD candidate in psychiatry at McGill University.
  • Samuel Veissière is an anthropologist, cognitive scientist and co-director of McGill University's Culture, Mind, and Brain Program
  • Malaya Kiernan is a participant in placebo machine pilot study. Anne Marie Plante is her mother.
  • Rachel Haliburton is a bioethicist and associate professor of philosophy at the University of Sudbury. She's the co-author of Bioethics in Canada: A Philosophical Introduction
  • Irving Kirsch is associate director of the Program in Placebo Studies and a lecturer in medicine at the Harvard Medical School. He's the author of The Emperor's New Clothes: Exploding the Antidepressant Myth

**Ideas from the Trenches is produced by Nicola Luksic and Tom Howell.