Seriously. 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?