Derren Brown produced a remarkable TV programme recently, called Fear and Faith, about widely known phenomenon called the placebo effect.
It was a blend of documentary, scientific research, reality TV, educational programming, and the combination was nothing less than inspirational.
Fear and Faith – the placebo effect
If you’ve ever watched any of Derren Brown’s TV shows, you know there has to be more to it than just what’s visible on the surface. He produces TV and theatre shows that are multi-layered, fascinating, eye-opening and jaw-dropping. You just can’t help being impressed by his skills and his command of his subject. This latest of his television shows, Fear and Faith, focuses on an important subject, that of the ability we all have latent within us to overcome almost anything that is giving us a problem.
We’re all aware of the placebo effect – it’s well known that if a doctor, or someone usually seen as an authority figure, recommends a certain course of action, or a particular drug or medication, it will likely be successful even if it’s almost wholly imaginary.
A good example of this is an old remedy I heard about years ago; it was said that childhood warts used to be routinely cured by the child, on his or her mother’s instructions, going out and finding a slug and killing it (actually, in the tale I read, nailing it to a tree!). The child was supposed to leave it somewhere in the garden, or wherever (nailed to the tree?), and revisit it daily to watch its decomposition. The child’s mother would assure the child that as the slug decomposed, so the warts would follow suit and disappear also. And, of course, in many cases that’s exactly what happened.
It wasn’t based on magic, or on any medical or chemical process as we would normally understand it, but it was effective. And the reason was simple – if the child believed implicitly in what his or her mother said, the subconscious mind would put into action whatever was necessary to achieve the desired and expected result. That’s the whole basis of the placebo effect, and it’s been known since time immemorial.
The placebo effect – on steroids!
Derren Brown’s concept, with this show, was to take the placebo effect to the next level. His idea was to add one placebo layer on top of another, repeatedly, to make the effect that much more profound. So he introduced his subjects to a leading professor, very successful in his field (a phoney, but anyway, one very authoritative layer), in a very convincing and apparently state-of-the-art scientific establishment (totally fake, but still, another layer), and let them sit and watch a corporate video (layer three) explaining how this new wonder drug works (completely made up, but it constituted layer four). It went on, layer after layer. Many actors played their parts, as both scientists and research subjects, and the very carefully prepared scenario became very, very convincing.
Rumyodin – the new wonder drug
The subjects were given the first dose of the ‘drug’ in the form of an injection (which research has shown to be the most effective format for a placebo), and were given the follow up medication in the form of blue capsules. Capsules have been shown to be more effective than pills in a placebo situation. Blue was chosen since it has been shown to have the most calming effect, and in this situation each person’s problem (or response to their percieved problem) needed a calming effect.
Fear of heights
One subject, Daniel, had an irrational fear of heights, such that he couldn’t even cross a local bridge that was just a roadway with a slight hump.
A few minutes after the injection, he stood calmly next to Derren Brown on a high balcony, overlooking the pharmaceutical building lobby, discussing how effective the drug seemed to be, and so quickly too. He could barely believe he was able to be at this height and calmly look over the balcony, and he experienced none of the usual symptoms of fear and stress he had come to associate with heights.
Fear of confrontation
Another of Derren’s subjects, Nick, had developed a very disabling fear of confrontation, to the extent that he could barely hold a normal conversation with another person. This was rooted in an incident where he had run away from a violent situation, when he felt he should have stayed and helped his mates.
During the course of the programme (a few weeks into the ‘treatment’), Derren arranged a staged fight situation in Nick’s local pub. It was brewing for quite a few minutes, and Nick showed no real symptoms of distress as it developed. In the end, when one man had broken a [toffee glass] bottle and was looking very dangerous and threatening, Nick stepped in and helped to calm the situation down – something he would never have thought possible, before taking the course of medication.
A singer with a phobia of singing!
A third subject, Katie, an aspiring young actress with hopes of appearing in theatre musicals, had developed a phobia of singing in public. It had become so bad, in fact, that she could no longer even sing at home, even if she was alone!
Derren encouraged her to try busking in a busy shopping centre street, and she was able to do that, but it became too much for her, and, after a short while, she quit. He also arranged an audition for her at a theatre, but her nerves got the better of her (but at least she’d been able to sing!).
She had made some progress, but hadn’t achieved anything like the life-changing levels Derren was looking for. This concerned him, because singing in stage musicals had clearly been a very important ambition for Katie.
Top of the world, Ma!
One of the most amazing scenes in the programme was when Derren took Daniel onto a very high bridge, where, after a few weeks of the Rumyodin treatment, he felt totally at ease. He was so relaxed that he agreed, when Derren offered the opportunity, to walk up a series of steps that he’d arranged, so that he could stand on a level with the top of the safely rail.
Derren took this opportunity to sit on the rail next to him and have a chat. He casually explained that the whole thing was a set up, and that Rumyodin was a placebo. Daniel took it all in his stride; he’d overcome his fear of heights and didn’t give a damn how he’d managed it.
He ended up, standing (fully protected by a safety harness), with arms outspread, revelling in his ability to be so high, and so free, and to just drink in the wonderful panorama spread before and below him.
Placebo effect can work on allergies, eczema, addictions …
It later transpired that Derren had been working with several small groups, each unaware of the others. One group had problems with eczema and other allergies, another group were long term smokers who wanted to quit, and so on. Towards the end of the show, they were all brought together and Derren explained to them that it was all a plabebo – he’d made the whole thing up! The drug, Rumyodin, was, he explained, as anagram of Your Mind, and, as he further explained, it was they themselves that had brought about these marvellous changes.
They had totally trusted the ‘drug’, and, as he put it, “given themselves permission to act as if their ‘problems’ didn’t exist anymore”. He told them that now that they’d overcome their problems, they didn’t need the ‘drug’ anymore and would continue to be problem-free.
Katie’s big stage performance
Back to Katie: Derren accepted that the placebo had virtually failed for Katie, but he knew how badly she wanted to star in the West End. He met her for a coffee and a chat, and, being Derren Brown, had put her in a trance within moments, using a snap induction. He sat her in a wheelchair, reassured her everything was fine, and told her to go even deeper.
She was taken to a theatre and sat at a dressing room mirror. Professional make-up artists and hairdressers prepared her for a performance, while still she slept. Derren assured her everything would go well and she would shortly wake up and dress for her performance, and everything would be just fine.
Five minutes or so later, she was on stage, singing to a packed house. A few weeks earlier, Derren had asked her to practise a particular song, but hadn’t explained why, so she was well prepared. Her performance was stunning, and the whole audience raved over it. In the audience were many of the subjects of the experiment, and onscreen text updated viewers on their progess. It was almost uniformly successful.
Just how effective is the placebo effect?
What does this tell us, apart from the fact that Derren Brown has a magical touch when it comes to making riveting TV spectaculars? It demonstrates very clearly that we all have, within us, the resources to do and to be whatever we want. Almost all our excuses and reasons are created in our own minds. We can overcome addictions, we can banish phobias, we can take on challenges that used to appear so overwhelming that we would shy away from even trying. We can even, in some cases at least, heal ourselves.
Positive thinking is more than just smiling inanely and hoping for the best. It is a whole new mindset, a firm belief that we have the inner resources to achieve what we want, and an inner calm brought on by this knowledge.
We can all mentally take a course of Rumyodin, every day, and the little blue capsules (which only contained sugar, as it turned out) can have a truly amazing and lasting effect. We can change the way we think. We can know that we have within us everything we could ever need. And this knowing can free us from fear and addiction and weakness and temerity.
We should all take heart from this show, and a regular dose of self-belief. In many cases, it’s really all we need.
I am not medically qualified.
Nothing in this article is to be taken as medical advice.
If you have any phobias, or any other medical problems,
please discuss them with your doctor.
This article is provided in the hope that it will inspire you
to take more control of your life.
But please be aware that it does not constitute medical advice.
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