Don't laugh too hard because this has actually been done and golly gee about a third of would be surgery patients showed the exact same results as if they had really been operated on.
The first assumption one has to dump in order to understand how the placebo effect works, is the assumption--long held as a kind of biological dogma--that DNA controls our fate. One also has to dump it's corollary that the cell nucleus is analogous to the brain of the cell. Both of those assumptions are wrong. The more accurate statement is that the cell membrane, with it's multitude of information receptors and effectors, is the brain, and DNA is a sort of semi hardwired software program.
In this analogy DNA will not open a given 'window' (gene) unless it's told to by the keyboard of receptors residing in the cell wall. The agents which press those 'keys' in the cell wall are either matter, in the form of specific chemicals, hormones, or amino acids; or they are energy waves like light and sound which is why we see and hear. Molecular biologists have calculated that energy signals are processed 100 times more efficiently than chemical signals. The instantaneous appearance of some healings may actually be relative to the cellular information being processed.
One of the tools used with some effect to trigger the placebo effect is hypnosis. The fact hypnosis works indicates that another one of those cellular energy wave triggers is generated by thoughts, both conscious and unconscious. Those energetic thought waves can not only originate in the individual person, but can also come from other humans acting in the individual's environment.
There is an interesting story about a young Britsh physician in the 50's, Dr Albert Mason, who was using hypnosis to treat a young man for what he thought was a really bad case of warts. The young man's body was totally covered with wart like lesions except for his chest. In Mason's first session with the boy he gave the suggestion the skin on one arm become healthy and pink and sure enough when the boy returned the following week, the arm looked very healthy. Mason then consulted with the boy's attending physician and found out the real diagnosis was not warts but congenital ichthyosis, a disease which is both genetic and lethal. Undaunted Mason continued with his hypnotic treatments because it worked, and the boy continued to respond.
This case was a sensation in the British medical community, but not for long. When Mason attempted to repeat these results on other patients with congenital ichthyosis he was not nearly as successful. In later years he attributed this to his own lack of belief in his ability to repeat his success because he then knew what he was trying to treat was 'incurable' and he lost the cockiness and surety his ignorance had given him. With this particular disease, Dr. Mason's belief structure had taken him from a powerful placebo catalyst to an inert and ineffective doctor exactly like all his peers. Big Pharma to the rescue.
Along these same lines, I was watching an episode from the first season of the Tudors which dealt with a surge of plague running rampant through the British Isles. Given what we know about the virulence of these plagues and the ineffectiveness of the standard treatments, it's not unreasonable to think a significant number of people survived because of the placebo effect. Since the placebo effect triggers real cellular and genetic changes, it is also reasonable to speculate these changes in immunological ability were passed on to succeeding generations through the changed DNA of survivors. The effect of measles in the European populations vs American Indigenous populations comes to mind. This would be different from immunizing generations of children because it would involve a change in the actual DNA of survivors, not an externally introduced capacity for the immune system to recognize a particular invader. This could have significance for today because it is entirely possible there have been placebo effect healings in an occasional HIV sufferer who would then be a potential carrier while showing no identifiable effects from the disease, but the change in information in their genetic programming might be very interesting to know.
Placebo is a big subject with a multitude of variables, but it's effects are real and Big Pharma knows it. In this post I've only scratched the surface of some of the relevant biological thinking and none of the research. For those interested in more depth, Bruce Lipton's book 'The Biology of Belief' is a good place to start and his website lists numerous links to the most up to date research in cellular functioning, the new field of epigenetics, and the latest in human consciousness.
Tomorrow I want to get into the nocebo effect, which works exactly the same on a cellular level. Western culture is experiencing an explosion in cancer, auto immune, and mental health diseases. I suspect it's not a coincidence that we are experiencing this in parallel with our recent communication advances like television, radio, and movies. It could very well be we have created a very toxic thought wave environment-- to go along with our toxic material environment--and our bodies are biologically acting this out for us in the form of disease. Churches, historical Roman Catholicism in particular, have laid the groundwork for a lot of personal toxicity with their theologies of sin, guilt, and the irredeemable nature of humanity. It is not surprising that very very few of our religious have demonstrated much of a capacity to be strong placebo enhancers other wise known as spiritual healers. Like Dr Mason, eventually their belief structures ensure they will be as inert as the rest of their peers.