Michille: A Pill to Get Rid of Writer’s Block

pills istock-168763163Seriously. There’s a pill. I heard an interview with Robert Anthony Siegel on NPR Radio in which he discussed a one-man open-label placebo trial he’d undertaken with John Kelley. Siegel is a writer and Kelley is a psychology professor at Endicott College and the deputy director of Harvard’s Program in Placebo Studies and Therapeutic Encounter, a program devoted to the interdisciplinary study of the placebo effect. The goal was to get rid of Siegel’s writer’s block, and the panic attacks and insomnia that went hand-in-hand with the writer’s block. The interview was a discussion about the research and subsequent article in the Smithsonian Magazine – “Why I Take Fake Pills: Surprising new research shows that placebos still work even when you know they’re not real.

It started with:
“I think we can design a pill for that,” he’d told me initially. “We’ll fine-tune your writing pill for maximum effectiveness, color, shape, size, dosage, time before writing. What color do you associate with writing well?”

Siegel decided on gold. Hmmm. Why gold? He doesn’t say in the article. It’s the color of a legal pad? It made him think of money, like gold bars? And by the way, capsules look more scientific than pills. Really? I take a flax seed oil capsule and a stress B pill. One is a gold capsule and the other is a yellow pill. I’m not sure either one of them helps me with writer’s block. Cholesterol and stress, yes. Writing, no.

Over several weeks, they refined the elaborate plan (scheme) that included the time-limit (2 hours), jointly composed instructions that covered how to take them and what they were going to do. And then, they ordered the capsules – $400 for cellulose pills – that they both knew were nothing and since they were, insurance didn’t cover them.

These are the directions:
“This placebo has been designed especially for you, to help you write with greater freedom and more spontaneous and natural feeling. It is intended to help eliminate the anxiety and self-doubt that can sometimes act as a drag on your creative self-expression. Positive expectations are helpful, but not essential: It is natural to have doubts. Nevertheless, it is important to take the capsules faithfully and as directed, because previous studies have shown that adherence to the treatment regimen increases placebo effects.”

Then there’s some psycho drama (“I closed my eyes and tried to explain to the pills what I wanted them to do”) which includes Siegel’s anxiety escalating. Apparently (studies have shown) that placebo is a form of psychotherapy. It’s a psychological mechanism that can be used to help people self-heal. And research has shown that it can even work when the patient knows (called open-label placebos). There are studies, according to this article, that say the same about acupuncture. Needle in the wrong place – no problem!

And then there’s a bunch about enzyme-this and placebo-gene-that and a weird anecdote about giving his 12-year-old daughter a placebo drug to help her sleep. The article ends with the daughter going to sleep and Siegel taking 2 placebo pills and going back to work.

Maybe there’s more to those flax seed oil capsules than I thought. Do you think placebo pills can help you avoid writer’s block?

5 thoughts on “Michille: A Pill to Get Rid of Writer’s Block

  1. There are days when I can believe anything. Well, since I’m basically in the Nora Roberts camp that writer’s block doesn’t exist (sic), I guess a fake pill could cure it. Interesting thought, for sure! I wonder what will happen when Siegel runs out of placebo pills? Another $400? Or will he be cured for good?

    • My guess is that by the time the pills run out, he’ll have developed the habit of writing and it will be easier to sit down and do it pill-free. I am currently on day 2 of setting up a new morning ritual schedule. Supposedly it will take 30 days for it to become an ingrained routine. (I already screwed it up this morning, but I did get up at 6AM to go watch my husband run a 5k, so the good wife points are worth it.)

      • I am having trouble sitting down and writing at all. It’s not a block, as in I can’t think of what to write, I’m just not sitting down and doing it. A pill won’t help with that. Motivation would, but alas, I’m not finding that.

  2. Oh, I do like Robert Siegel. When I was listening to NPR faithfully, I always enjoyed his work.

    I am also fascinated by the placebos. I’ve read somewhere about placebo in connection with things like back pain. Some study said that even if patients know it’s a sugar pill, if they are told that “placebos are shown to provide some relief to some patients”, it has a better than average chance of working.

    Pain is such a strange thing, after all. If I slip off into my own world of reading or writing, I can forget completely about the bone spurs in my ankles. But sometimes in the middle of the night, the pain comes back, and I need to listen to some music in order to stop thinking about it enough to get back to sleep.

    It seems to me that writing might also be like Dumbo’s Magic Feather — if you have a trusty talisman, it tells your subconscious, “OK, no joke, it’s writing time.”

    The problem comes in when you have a block that won’t allow you to try any of the placebos or fixes.

    I think it could work. But if the block is something deeper than just simple anxiety, you may find yourself finding excuses not to take the flax pills.

    (And of course, placebos may work on the PAIN of cancer, sometimes, but it does nothing for the underlying cause. I am a firm believer of having things checked out for underlying causes. If the doc gives the OK, placebos are ready and waiting.)

  3. I don’t know if placebo pills can “cure” writer’s block, but I do believe in the power of “thinking” a pill will have an effect. Kind of like the power of positive thinking, as sort of mental “setting oneself up for success” kind of thing. I would think the placebo pills would have a better chance of working if the person thought they were some “real” kind of pill though, rather than knowing up front that there was nothing to them.

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