The Healing Wig — And The Power Of Cherished Objects

Can certain special objects, like wigs, actually have healing power?
Can certain special objects, like wigs, actually have healing power?

This story is not about politics. It's about a wig. A wig passed from one woman with breast cancer to another, and another, until it became a cherished gift, seemingly imbued with the power to heal.

Jeff Zaslow, writing in The Wall Street Journal, nicely explores the "talisman placebo effect," that is, the power of physical objects to embody hope, and the notion that if something worked for someone else, it can possibly work for you.

Why do human beings attach such great power to objects that are given to them, especially in times of crisis? For thousands of years, civilizations have embraced the mystical possibilities in amulets and talismans. Now science is explaining how these items actually work, and why, in today's digital age, they often take on even more significance.

"It's not voodoo," says Barbara Stoberock, a researcher at the University of Cologne in Germany. "It can be explained. If you have a lucky charm, and believe it helps you, there's a psychological mechanism. It lifts your beliefs in your own capabilities, and gives you a boost."

In a study released this year, Ms. Stoberock and a team of social psychologists found that people are more likely to attach superstitions to items during moments of uncertainty—when they're under high stress and low levels of perceived control.

The researchers conducted several experiments in which subjects performed better on memory and dexterity tests if they had personal talismans with them, whether stuffed animals, childhood blankets or inherited jewelry.

He also gave a nice plug to my blogging partner, Carey Goldberg, and her book, "Three Wishes," about some extraordinary (or so it seems) vials of donor sperm that she passed to another woman, who then passed it along again, until the three pushing-40 women were all happily married, and with children they'd been dreaming of for years. "The unused vials of sperm," writes Zaslow, "became talismans for romance, luck and motherhood."

This program aired on November 3, 2010. The audio for this program is not available.

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Rachel Zimmerman Reporter
Rachel Zimmerman previously reported on health and the intersection of health and business for WBUR. She is working on a memoir about rebuilding her family after her husband’s suicide. 



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