The Sugar Pill #399

December 09, 2016

This week, we're taking on the science of the sugar pill. We're talking about the placebo effect, its potential benefits and its pitfalls. We speak with Erik Vance about his new book "Suggestible You: The Curious Science of your Brain's Ability to Deceive, Transform and Heal". And we'll talk with Kathryn Hall, a genetic epidemiologist at Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School, about why we experience the placebo effect, why some people are more open to suggestion than others, and why that might not be a weakness.

This episode is hosted by Bethany Brookshire, science writer from Science News.


  • Erik Vance
  • Kathryn Hall

Guest Bios

Erik Vance

Erik Vance is an award-winning science writer based in California and Mexico City. Raised as a Christian Scientist, he graduated with honors from the Christian Science school, Principia College in 1999 with a degree in biology. After working as a scientist on research projects dealing with dolphin intelligence and coastal ecology, he became an educator and then an environmental consultant. In 2005, he attended UC Santa Cruz s famed science communication program and discovered a passion for journalism. There he learned that only through compelling characters can stories touch and inspire us. Since then, he has built his career around science-based profiles of inspiring, dedicated, or controversial figures in society. His work has appeared in Harper's Magazine, the New York Times, the Utne Reader, Scientific American, and National Geographic. He is also a contributing editor at Discover magazine.

Kathryn Hall

Kathryn Hall is an Associate Molecular Biologist in the Division of Preventive Medicine at Brigham and Women's Hospital and an Instructor in Medicine at Harvard Medical School. She received her PhD in Microbiology and Molecular Genetics from Harvard University before spending 10 years in the biotech industry tackling problems in drug development, first at Wyeth and then at Millennium Pharmaceuticals, where she became an Associate Director of Drug Development. She returned to HMS in 2010, joining the Fellowship in Integrative Medicine at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in 2012, and receiving a Masters in Public Health from Harvard School of Public Health in 2014. Among her recent accomplishments is a landmark paper published in PLOS ONE describing COMT as a genetic marker of placebo response, and a broader review in Trends in Molecular Medicine on the impact of genetics on the placebo response. Her work has led to the coining of the term "placebome", which was added to Jargonwatch by WIRED magazine in 2015. Her research has been the focus of numerous articles including features in Science, The Atlantic, The Economist and Discover magazines.

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