The Powerful Placebo of Creativity

Say the word placebo and people’s noses wrinkle up. A placebo is a pill that doesn’t do anything, doesn’t cure anything, contains no drugs. And yet, between 35 percent and 75 percent of  people who are given placebos experience the same cure as people in the group that were given the real drug. If the doctor who hands out a placebo is optimistic and assures the patient the pill is the real thing, the cure rate is on the higher side of the statistics.

How do placebos work? They trigger the powerful body-mind connection we all have. They give the mind permission to do the healing work, and the body follows along. Not bad for a blank pill.

When I do book signings, I sometimes ask the people in the audience to make permission slips. I bring blank watercolor postcards, pens, colored pencils, markers, and glitter glue. As we make permission slips, I encourage people to give themselves permission to be creative, to let the housework slide, to take time to daydream.

Some people ask me to sign the slip. I encourage them to sign their own slip, as each person needs to give him- or herself permission to let go of their old beliefs. The Inner Hero is not a new person–it’s the authentic you, the person you wish you might be someday. But you already are, but have trouble admitting it. Heroes have a lot of responsibility.

Occasionally, I do sign the permission slip. I look the person in the eye and say, “This is powerful, and you have to work an hour every day to make it work.” I’ve begun to hear back from people, who have discovered that their permission slip has power.

Like a placebo, the permission slip takes away excuses and replaces it with possibility. The chance that ideas will come, that creativity will flicker and catch pushes reluctance aside, and leaves space for acting as an Inner Hero. When success gets breathing room, it expands.  The people who write me to say their permission slip worked–they always were creative. What they needed was the permission to believe it and act on it.

What would you like to take a pill for if it gave you what you were hoping for?

-Quinn McDonald is the author of The Inner Hero Creative Art Journal.  She will be signing books and encouraging people to discover their Inner Hero on February 20 at Changing Hands bookstore in Tempe, Arizona. 7 p.m. Come join in!


26 thoughts on “The Powerful Placebo of Creativity

  1. …. just like me! I do everything with my left hand except writing. I can write with my left hand too but not very good and fast; about ten years ago I tried to retrain me to the left hand, although I read that one should not do it without assistance and indeed it confused me even more; so after several weeks
    I refrained from it and decided that it simply was too late and that I had to let go all that stuff!

    • Letting go is also healthy. People often claim that because I write with my right hand, I’m right-handed. But I brush my teeth, comb my hair, eat, hold my cell phone, and reach with my left hand.

  2. Hello Quinn,
    I think you are too harsh to yourself! Aren’t you a lefthander like myself? Preferably retrained too?
    I read your post about Sam Bennett’s book which treats just my kind of problems! I can easily order it through Amazon Germany and don’t want to put myself in the draw! It would be unfair towards the other people!
    Have a nice creative weekend with a tamed inner critic!

    • Yep, I am a completely left-handed people, who, thanks to some stern nuns, was turned into a right-handed writer in 7th grade. I am still completely left-handed, but I still write right-handed. Except when I write on a flip chart. Then I write left-handed. Because I can!

  3. …that’s exactly what I need the pill for: to let go my fears, my perfectionism and self-doubt so that I can become my true and better self. Sometimes I get a glimpse of it when I am in the creative flow; but often I am very disciplined during the day and in the evening when I have leisure to be creative I spend too much time in front of the computer and can’t get started! So now in a few minutes I shall shut down here and open my journal….
    I hope that during your book signings you can give lots of powerful permission slips to your readers!
    You are my hero of self-discipline (work, diet….) and it helps to know that you are there…

    • I’m so glad I can be someone’s hero–because my Inner Critic is in full voice today. And yes, I am behind on two projects. You, however, Suzanne, got excellent news today and I am thrilled for you!

  4. Pete! I never would have believed that you are a believer in magic! I believe, I have taught all my children and grand children to believe. Magic really can work but you do have to believe it will.
    And yes, we all live in a world of our own creation, the ultimate art. We each believe in what we’ve created there in our heads, for good or ill. In some cases a placebo can change what we believe, make it better, at least for a time.
    Placebos can come in many forms. Once before taking my grand daughter to get her ears pierced (her idea) we stopped in at the coffee shop. She needed a little breather as she was very anxious about it. I told her we were going to get a little courage and ordered chai tea and a pumpkin scone. It soothed her nerves enough to make it possible for her to get the piercing done and now when she needs a bolster she goes for chai and a pumpkin scone.
    Of course we know it wasn’t the chai or the scone but the time and the words we spoke while there. But she associates those two foods with the power she needed and in “her” world there is comfort in that.

    • Sure, magic can work in your head, or “in the world in your head”. People engage in magical thinking all the time. Thinking it works anywhere outside your head is a recursive example of magical thinking! But like your example shows, if you convince yourself of something, then act on that conviction, THAT is very likely to have a real effect.

      “Does [something] exist” is a pretty vague question, after all.

  5. Well…on closer examination, if the medical problem is subjective (pain, for example), there can be a placebo effect. Sugar pills are not going to affect problems that can be observed by others, like a broken arm.

    But what you’re talking about is also a subjective thing. The world inside one’s head is not the world, but it is a world, and in that world magic can really work.

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