A paediatrician friend told me that his favourite cartoon was of a man at a surgery saying, ‘I’ll take the placebo if it makes you feel better, doctor.’ Or there’s my favourite, The Simpsons, when the people of Springfield rush to the hospital for a miracle drug and are told it is just a placebo. ‘Where can we get these placebos?’ someone shouts.
But so much for the joke. A recent Horizon programme showed how something as simple as a pill filled with sugar or corn flour can help in recovery from IBS and Parkinson’s in full flare-up. A fake procedure aids recovery from vertebral fractures. And it’s not just health. The performance of the British cycling team was so improved that one cyclist recorded a personal best time. A climber was able to function at low oxygen levels. Best effects are from being given a large red and white pill by someone wearing a white coat. But it can even work when you know you are being given a placebo.
So, my question is this. What if you were given a new miracle pill for your particular field of endeavour, and told that, for the period of taking that pill, your performance would improve to a standard beyond that which you thought you would be capable of? What would you find yourself able to do?
For me, I would find myself able to write with the mastery of Jane Austen, the energy of Charles Dickens; fluency of Penelope Lively; the informal humour of Raymond Chandler; the wit of PG Wodehouse; the poetry of Ken Kesey.
The fictional world would present itself to me as if I were just a stenographer sitting in the scene with the characters. No longer needing to worry about plot, because that was just something that happened in front of me. And at the end, I would be able to look back and see how things had connected up, and why the protagonist now finds him/herself where she is. A fully realised world with insights and knowledge about it seamlessly woven into the prose. Characters who had both humour and suffering. A plot that drew you along with a sense of mystery and disclosed something deeper towards the end.
As an experiment, I tried this on a chapter I was rewriting. Using, as my placebo, a large vitamin pill taken with a glass of fizzy water (no, really). And certainly there were insights. Somehow I relaxed more easily into the point-of-view of the main character. So much so, that when I tried to change something she had said because it didn’t seem right, she got quite cross. I put it back the way it was.
What we’re talking about would be familiar to anyone who uses solution-focused techniques. It’s a mild form of self-hypnosis that helps you to overcome the barriers that normally exist.