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!


A Happy Life or a Meaningful Life?

Having children makes people less happy. It's called the parenting happiness gap and depending on what country you live in the happiness gap travels up or down. 

This seems pretty obvious to me. Day to day my children cause a ton of stress. That's just a given. But over the long haul parenting is immensely satisfying. It is also a gift in itself to take a step outside of yourself and literally keep someone else alive. 

American parents post the largest gap. Policies like subsidized health care and paid maternity leave make a big difference. Read about it here.

But here is the real question I'm asking today.

What is the difference between a happy life and a meaningful life?

A quote from Steven Pinker's book "Enlightenment Now" which I heard on Debbie Millman's Design Matters podcast:

"People that lead happy but not necessarily meaningful lives have all their needs satisfied. They're healthy, they have enough money and feel good a lot of the time. People who lead meaningful lives may enjoy none of these boons. Happy people live in the present. Those with meaningful lives have a narrative about their past and a plan for the future. Those with happy but meaningless lives are takers and beneficiaries. Those with meaningful and unhappy lives are givers and benefactors. Parents get meaning from their children but not necessarily happiness. Time spent with friends makes a life happier. Time spent with loved ones makes a life more meaningful. Stress, worry, arguments, challenges and struggles make a life unhappier but more meaningful. It's not like people with meaningful lives masochistically go looking for trouble, but that they pursue ambitious goals. Finally, meaning is about expressing rather than satisfying the self. It is enhanced by activities that define the person and build a reputation." 

My next question is can you have both? 

My quest for a meaningful life is currently out of balance with my happy life. I've always been one to push myself beyond what I believe I'm capable of in order to create a life that is full of meaning. Currently I'm in a happiness holding pattern as I learn to sit inside that uncomfortableness and wrestle with my meaningful life.  

In conversation over dinner this weekend a friend said to me: "Why not just enjoy being happy with your life?"

My answer: "Why would you not want to pursue meaning?" 

Friend: "At the result of being unhappy?"

Me: "Maybe".

Is a meaningful life more important to me (and maybe you?) than happiness?

My gut says yes. That sounds crazy to me, but I think it's the truth. 

Just like my decision to have children and all the grief that comes along with it (money, time, mental strain and stress), my decision to choose a creative life over- I don't know what we call it...a simple life?- is infinitely troublemaking. 

Now don't get me wrong. There is nothing wrong with a simple life. I hesitate to even use that word. It sounds demeaning and I don't mean it to. What I mean by simple is the ability to lead a life that stays in the present. A life that's not overly complicated and simple at it's core. That actually sounds wonderful and if I could be satisfied with that then I'd be, well...happy. Yet I pursue meaning and as a result often feel pressure, nervousness, fear and exhilaration at my potential as my creative soul searches for more. 

So how to merge meaningfulness with happiness? 

I re-read Steven Pressfield's The War of Art I was reminded of two of my favorite quotes.

The first quote.

“The artist committing himself to his calling has volunteered for hell, whether he knows it or not. He will be dining for the duration on a diet of isolation, rejection, self-doubt, despair, ridicule, contempt, and humiliation.” 

The second quote.

“Are you a born writer? Were you put on earth to be a painter, a scientist, an apostle of peace? In the end the question can only be answered by action.

Do it or don't do it.

It may help to think of it this way. If you were meant to cure cancer or write a symphony or crack cold fusion and you don't do it, you not only hurt yourself, even destroy yourself,. You hurt your children. You hurt me. You hurt the planet.

You shame the angels who watch over you and you spite the Almighty, who created you and only you with your unique gifts, for the sole purpose of nudging the human race one millimeter farther along its path back to God.

Creative work is not a selfish act or a bid for attention on the part of the actor. It's a gift to the world and every being in it. Don't cheat us of your contribution. Give us what you've got.” 

Heady stuff huh? It sounds dramatic because it is. By giving into, as Steven Pressfield calls resistance, you are giving up that which you are meant to be doing. In turn that causes unhappiness and lack of meaning.

Well that's a double whammy isn't it?

Not following the path that I know I need to go down because I'm afraid? Well that is the ultimate doom for me. Is it for you?

But there is hope!

With each day I do the actual work I gain more confidence towards my ultimate calling. The crazy thing is I have no idea what that is quite yet. I suppose I've spent the first twenty years of my professional creative life laying the plans for the next chapter. For the first time in my life I'm allowing myself the space for my creative muse to figure that out for me. 

It may not change the world, but it will change me and that is enough.

I believe I've caught myself just in time. I'm at the intersection of fear, constraint, discipline and courage. 

Sometimes a good old crisis can launch us into this arena. Why not use it to our advantage?

I'll end today's post with one more quote from "The War of Art." If you haven't read it, why not give it a go? If you've already read it I recommend going back and re-reading. I learned that I wasn't ready for all the lessons found inside as I was five years ago. You may find the same.

“. . . None of us are born as passive generic blobs waiting for the world to stamp its imprint on us. Instead we show up possessing already a highly refined and individuated soul.

Another way of thinking of it is: We're not born with unlimited choices.

We can't be anything we want to be.

We come into this world with a specific, personal destiny. We have a job to do, a calling to enact, a self to become. We are who we are from the cradle, and we're stuck with it.

Our job in this lifetime is not to shape ourselves into some ideal we imagine we ought to be, but to find out who we already are and become it.” 

Let's go find out who that person is, do the work and become it.

Below are affiliate links for the above mentioned books which means I get a kick back from Amazon at no cost to you! Here is a great podcast episode with Steven Pinker and one of my very favorite podcasts, Design Matters with Debbie Millman. You can listen to that  here.