Hocus Pocus, Hexes and Healers: The Placebo Behind Magic

Jason Da Silva Castanheira, Amir Raz


My friend and I sat in the library late one afternoon frantically studying for finals. A nervous wreck, she could not help but panic at the thought of memorizing hundreds of molecules. At that very moment, I serendipitously received a message from my aunt who lived in Portugal—an expert spell caster who could ensure anyone a good grade on an exam. After telling this to my friend she quickly made a list of requests. My friend aced that final, but not because I informed my aunt of her pleas… Though witchcraft and the occult make very appealing explanations for the strange things that happen to us in our daily lives, these explanations do not stand the rigor of science. The so-called ‘magic’ that entices and enchants us, often stems from placebo effects and psychology. For better or for worse, the magic in our world has a significantly less supernatural explanation. Let us unveil the science behind the curtain. 

Full Text:




Allison, S., & Malony, H. (1981). Filipino Psychic Surgery: Myth, Magic, or Miracle. Journal of Religion and Health, 20(1), 48-62. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/27505608

Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. "Knowingly taking placebo pills eases pain, study finds." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 14 October 2016. .

Broadly. (Oct. 31, 2016). Casting Curses and Love Spells with the Most Powerful Witches in Romania [Video file]. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X1g3CYbsssw&t=920s

Carvalho, C., Caetano, J. M., Cunha, L., Rebouta, P., Kaptchuk, T. J., & Kirsch, I. (January 01, 2016). Open-label placebo treatment in chronic low back pain: a randomized controlled trial. Pain, 157, 12, 2766-2772.

Chen, Y., Ouyang, D. S., Kang, Z., Yang, G. P., Tan, Z. R., Zhou, G., & Yan, J. (January 01, 2012). Effect of a traditional Chinese medicine Liu Wei Di Huang Wan on the activities of CYP2C19, CYP2D6 and CYP3A4 in healthy volunteers. Xenobiotica; the Fate of Foreign Compounds in Biological Systems, 42, 6, 596-602.

Cravotto, G., Boffa, L., Genzini, L., & Garella, D. (January 01, 2010). Phytotherapeutics: an evaluation of the potential of 1000 plants. Journal of Clinical Pharmacy and Therapeutics, 35, 1, 11-48.

Folk Figures. (1948). Western Folklore, 7(4), 391-392. doi:10.2307/1497852

Green, S. A. (September 01, 2006). Surgeons and Shamans. Clinical Orthopaedics and Related Research, 450, 3, 249-254.

Horia, T. (December, 18, 2011). Revolta vrăjitoarelor: "Deputaţii nu ştiu cu cine se pun. Am adus un bărbat la nevastă în 12 ore". EVZ.ro. Retrieved from: http://evz.ro/revolta-vrajitoarelordeputatii-nu-stiu-cu-cine-se-pun-am-adus-un-barbat-la-nevasta-in-1-9.html

Kleinman, A. M. (August 29, 2008). Medicine's symbolic reality. Inquiry, 16, 206-213.

Long, C. M. (2006). A New Orleans voudou priestess: The legend and reality of Marie Laveau. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.

Martin, H. J. (January 01, 1999). Unraveling the Enigma of Psychic Surgery. Journal of Religion and Psychical Research, 22, 3, 168-174.

Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioral study of obedience. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67, 371-378.

Milgram, S. (1965). Some conditions of obedience and disobedience to authority. Human relations, 18(1), 57-76.

Milgram, S. (1974). Obedience to authority: An experimental view. Harpercollins.

NBC news. (April 21st, 2004). “Aborigine Puts Curse on Australian PM”. Retrieved from:


Paniagua, F.A. (2000). Culture-bound syndromes, cultural variations, and psychopathology, in I. Cuéllar & F.A. Paniagua, Eds., Handbook of multicultural mental health: Assessment and treatment of diverse populations (pp. 140-141). New York: Academic Press.

Regal, Brian. (2009) Pseudoscience: a critical encyclopedia. (April 01, 2010). Choice Reviews Online, 47, 8, 47-4171.

Rostro. (December 30, 2014). “Scared to Death: Aborigines Put Curse on Aussie PM”. Ultra Kulture. Retrieved from: http://www.ultrakulture.com/2014/12/30/scared-to-death-aborigines-put-curse-on-aussie-pm/

Spellman, F. R., & Price-Bayer, J. (2011). In defense of science: Why scientific literacy matters. Lanham: Government Institutes.

The Associated Press. (January 6, 2001). A Tax on Witches? A Pox on the President. The New York Times. Retrieved from: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/07/world/europe/07witches.html

Touchstone, B. (1972). Voodoo in New Orleans. Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association, 13(4), 371-386. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/4231284

Welch, J. S. (March 01, 2003). Ritual in Western Medicine and Its Role in Placebo Healing. Journal of Religion and Health, 42, 1, 21-33.

Willard, J., Madon, S., Guyll, M., Spoth, R., & Jussim, L. (April 01, 2008). Self-efficacy as a moderator of negative and positive self-fulfilling prophecy effects: mothers' beliefs and children's alcohol use. European Journal of Social Psychology, 38, 3, 499-520.

Wilkinson, D. (January 01, 2009). The self-fulfilling prophecy in intensive care. Theoretical Medicine and Bioethics, 30, 6, 401-10.

WHO. “Fact sheet N°134”. Retrieved from: http://www.webcitation.org/5Zeyw2hfS?url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.who.int%2Fmediacentre%2Ffactsheets%2Ffs134%2Fen%2F

Zhu, X., Liew, Y., & Liu, Z. L. (March 15, 2016). Chinese herbal medicine for menopausal symptoms. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, 3.) 

  •  Announcements
    Atom logo
    RSS2 logo
    RSS1 logo
  •  Current Issue
    Atom logo
    RSS2 logo
    RSS1 logo

We wish to acknowledge the financial support of the Canada Council for the Arts, the Munk School of Global Affairs, and Mount Sinai Hospital.

Canada Council for the Arts
Munk School of Global Affairs
Mount Sinai Hospital