The Man Who Thought He Was Going To Die and the startling reality of placebo

A man was in a double blind drug trial and thought he was being treated with anti-depressants.

One night, depressed, he decided to take the bottle of medication in order to kill himself. His body started to shut down, he was rushed to the hospital where they started the IV and tried to get his body to stabilize. 

It took three doctors to convince the man that he had actually taken an entire bottle of sugar pills. It was only after he was finally convinced that his body started to restore.

The power of placebo is strong. I had no idea how strong. In fact there is a specific hierarchy to types of placebo.

From an article in

  • Placebo surgery works better than placebo injections
  • Placebo injections work better over placebo pills
  • Sham acupuncture works better than a placebo pill
  • Capsules work better than tablets
  • Big pills work better than small
  • The more doses a day, the better
  • The more expensive, the better
  • The color of the pill makes a difference
  • If your doctor says "This WILL alleviate your pain" or "This WILL make you run faster" it works better than something more casual like "This could help you."

Here is the most exciting part that researchers have discovered

Even if you KNOW you are told you are receiving a placebo, your brain doesn't really know. That is because most of your brain doesn't speak English (or whatever language you speak). The parts of your brain that feels fear, guilt, or joy, thinks in pictures and associations as well as ritual.

If you're interested in learning more about how the brain "thinks" you can listen to an awesome podcast with Steven Pinker, who is the author of many books but he talks specifically about this concept in his book, "The Language Instinct." You can listen to that interview here.

Athletes have been injected with saline and told it was steroids and guess what? It made them run faster. Why? Their body believed.

So how can we apply this to creative life? 

Well one way is to literally buy a placebo pill and take it as a ritual. Does that sound ridiculous? It feels ridiculous to write it, but it seems to work. And guess what? They sell them. I know because I just bought some. I figure the $12.95 is worth the experiment. Here they are.

It also has a name. Open label placebo. The field of open label placebo is currently being explored as a way to treat opiate addictions, chronic pain and other diseases that are difficult to treat.

Placebo is about ritual and symbols. The brain connects the taking of a pill, (or acupuncture/pressure/massage) with a specific goal. It can help treat pain but it can also help treat writers block, mental agility, or perhaps you could apply it to learning piano. 

I believe if I gave a placebo to a singing student experiencing stage fright in auditions it would work.

Losing your breath on stage or in audition is such a mental game, I don't see how it couldn't help. 

Read about this man's experience with extreme writers block and using open label placebo to help him. You can find that article here.

I find that just fascinating enough to see if I can apply it to my life. My morning meditation feels partly placebo in that if I haven't done it that morning I feel off. I've also started to have a cup of vegetable soup with each meal, morning, noon and night with the goal of instructing my body to heal itself from the inside out. 

Granted, that's not all placebo. Drinking dense vegetable soup three times daily is obviously going to have physiological effects on my body. But what if I connected the ritual of drinking soup to a mental image of it moving through my body and "patching" up all the rough spots. Would I get less sick?

What if I bought a specific type of tea that I drank daily 30 minutes before working on my play? Would I be more productive and focused? 

I'm not sure but it's worth the experiment. I'll report back!