Johann Hari begins his incredible book Lost Connections with a great retelling of the Perkins “Tractor Wand” episode. A product of the late 18th century, the tractor wand had the power to cure many ailments, completely eliminating a patient’s physical pain, regardless of cause. Doctors in England decided to run an experiment. They created their own version of the tractor using first a simple stick and then a bone wrapped in a towel. To their surprise, the patients they treated in the experiment showed great improvements. The key to its success was that the patient had to fully believe in the efficacy of the treatment - essentially, the placebo effect.
Hari opens the book with the tractor story to set up a larger and deeply researched narrative about the effectiveness of antidepressant medications. His dive into clinical trials suggests that the therapeutic benefits of antidepressants have been overstated, and the placebo effect has not been accounted for in many studies. And while Hari acknowledges the important role antidepressants can play in treating depression, he wants to focus on the incredibly significant role our own beliefs play as well.
While some might read the placebo effect as a negative thing - how can we know what medicines are effective when our brains can trick us so thoroughly? I tend to read it is a positive - our brains are so powerful that our beliefs can make real changes in our lives.
The placebo effect proves the power of our beliefs, and this strength can be applied in many areas of our lives, especially around setting and achieving goals. So many of our goals are on the other side of fixed ideas about ourselves and our lives. And these fixed ideas act like obstacles between us and our goals.
- What if instead of believing that you crave sugar, you believed that you had total control over what you crave?
- What if instead of believing that you struggle with learning new technology, you believed that you were constantly capable of learning new things?
- What if instead of believing that you couldn’t motivate yourself to go to the gym, you believed that you were the kind of person who goes to the gym every day?
A sense of who we are, what we are like, can help us navigate the world effective and efficiently. But it can also box us in. And if the placebo effect teaches us anything, it’s that our perception can often become our reality.
So start your goal setting with this question: What do I need to believe to make this goal a reality?
***Lost Connections is an incredible book, and highly recommended for anyone struggling with depression or anxiety. Hari’s big point in Lost Connections is that anxiety and depression often occur as the result of a number of factors including societal, and social, not simply an imbalance in our brain chemistry, and he provides a number of possible solutions for anyone hoping to navigate a holistic solution to depression.