Michille: A Pill for 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? The two capsules I take are flaxseed oil and fish oil. They help with cholesterol but I haven’t noticed a boost in my writing.

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 on the bottle: “Take 2 capsules with water 10 minutes before writing. Placebo, no refills.”

These are the directions on an insert: “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.”

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). Functional MRI and other new technologies are showing that placebos, like real pharmaceuticals, actually trigger neurochemicals such as endorphins and dopamine, and activate areas of the brain associated with analgesia and other forms of symptomatic relief.

Do you think placebo pills can help you avoid writer’s block? Do you have other scientific means of combating writer’s block?

9 thoughts on “Michille: A Pill for Writer’s Block

  1. I’ve been reading about recent placebo research, and knew about the open label pills, but hadn’t heard about the ones for writer’s block. It makes sense to me for writer’s block because that’s truly all in your head and placebos are designed to fix what’s in your head.

    I think I need ones with instructions that say, “Taking this pill one hour before writing will allow you to figure out why the hell this book is so stinking tedious.”

    • You don’t need a pill to tell you why the book is tedious. I think all books get tedious at a certain point. I’m not sure I’ve ever actually experienced writer’s block. My writing problem has always been making the time for it. At this point, I’ve been away from my story for so long, that I’m not getting back to it because I know it’s going to take some time to get back into it.

      • That’s definitely a hill to climb. I’m so frustrated with my current demon book that I’ve picked up the contemporary I abandoned last summer (even though I got a request for it from an agent last year at National). I haven’t touched it since August, so I know your pain.

  2. Placebo pills could help me a lot with many things, but I don’t really suffer from writer’s block. My problem is that what I write can be garbage for months on end. But the boring words don’t have any trouble coming out. I hope the placebo pills helped Robert Siegel!

  3. I’ve been reading about things like this for some time, especially for pain management. Studies show that if you give a person a placebo, and say, “This is a placebo, but studies show that if you take it, it will help you as much as XX pain reliever”, then it will often work at a statistically high rate.

    We are magical beings, and we’re wired for this. That’s why religion works, I think. So, if you have faith in science, it really could bring things around.

    After all, writing block is a sort of psychic pain.

    And I think it definitely could work. Choose a harmless pill or necessary supplement that you could associate with writing, and then . . . associate it with writing. Heck, I think it could be green M&Ms. The thing is, you must have faith in Robert Siegel’s reporting!

    Or, if you need a little more boost, have a writer friend choose a pill/supplement for you, and you do the same for the friend. That way, your subconscious is thinking, “If this doesn’t work, I’m letting down not only Robert Siegel, but also the good taste of my writing friend.”

    (-: I think I’ll try it this weekend, but I’m going to have to think about this overnight. What would work best for me? Blue M&Ms? Spiky little sugar candies called “konpeito”? Maybe a potion of lemons, honey and rosemary (for remembrance)? (Poured over ice, of course — summer is coming to the Northern Hemisphere!)

    I think the anecdotal evidence is already there. Writers have their lucky shirts and sweaters, their lucky pencils, their lucky routines. I bet “writing pills” work just as well. You just gotta believe!

    (The big problem with some blocks, though, is that I refuse to take the basic self-care and first steps that I know will lead to writing. I have success with a 10-minute creativity meditation, and instead of using it every time I feel blocked, I don’t use it. I don’t know what’s going on with that — it’s very subconscious. Maybe I’m “saving it for later”? Or my stubborn Girls just aren’t ready to write, and dig their heels in. If I don’t make lemonade this weekend, I’ll know it’s them, making their wishes known.)

    • I don’t know about a placebo, but I used to have a very structured writing pattern in place. Time/location. Music. Scented candles. Tea. Then I took a couple years off writing to be PTA president and sort of forgot about that stuff, but it recently came to mind because I’ve had such a hard time staying on task. Once our home renovation is done and my office is my office again (right now, it’s our kitchen), I think I want to get out the old candle and music and see if I can get some Pavlovian-type juju going. And if that doesn’t work, maybe some placebo pills.

    • Good points, Michaeline, it’s not so much about a pill as what works for each individual. Pills don’t work for me at all in any area of my life, except vitamins. Anytime, I’ve been diagnosed with an ailment that a doctor would prescribe a pill for, I go to my Chinese herb guy and get a fix from him. So only vitamins, minerals, herbs in my pills, no drugs. So if you’re the kind of person that takes pills to solve things, maybe it could help with writing.

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