How Derren Brown's placebo effect experiment changed this man's life
By Dr Becky Spelman
In this video psychologist Dr Becky Spelman interviews a man who’s life was transformed by a placebo pill. The interview discusses the power of the mind and how beliefs and behaviours can be changed by the power of placebo. While Dr Becky usually uses Cognitive Behavioural techniques (CBT) to achieve change in her clients, TV Hypnotist Derren Brown uses an alternative approach which proves just as effective.
So I’m here with Dan. I know Dan for a while now. I heard a snippet of this story and I’m really curious about finding out a little bit more. It’s a situation that completely, drastically change Dan’s belief systems. So tell me how do they all started?
So I guess it all started when I was a main participant in a Derren Brown’s episode back in 2012, I think it was.
I find that so absolutely fascinating and it’s just really interesting what he does and how he completely shakes people’s lives off and then creates something that I guess changes their belief so people can lead a more fulfilling life.
No, it was a great experience to be fair. In fact, the episode that I was in was basically to do with the idea about placebo. We were all given this pill that we were told.
I’m curious about what your life was like before this all started. Can you kind of paint a little bit of a picture as to what life was like?
I guess I was quite an introvert person. Very, very shy growing up. In fact, I probably spent maybe way too much time indoors playing the PlayStation, not really wanting to go out to socialize or meet people or anything like that. Most of it really kind down to the kind of phase that I had just to do real life in general, from the small fears of like spiders and heights to the idea of actually socializing and meeting people. Yeah, I mean it was obviously a very different kind of time by then. I can kind of remember just little bits and pieces of it of kind of how I felt by that. But yeah, I mean it was a huge change once I’ve been on this pill, just off the three months of being told that it would cure your fears and phobias.
So you went on the show and then, they gave you the pill. He told you to take it for how long?
For about three months.
Yes, so we had about four pills every day. Pretty much wrapped up with every single meal.
Quite a rigid routine.
Yes, so on the first placebo that we had was an injection so it was a saline solution. It wasn’t kind of anything too drastic. You kind of see in the episode, he make sort of mention about injections tend to encourage people more with the belief that whatever the placebo is, is real. They kind of set up the whole situation, that we were in a pharmaceutical center. There were actors and stuff around. Anyway, all made it very realistic.
I mean you knew that Derren Brown was involved. Did you not see some of his shows before? You’ve seen them?
Oh, yes. Even after being on the pill for a week, I was sceptical. I was kind of like there’s got to be something here. It wasn’t until like I came home from work one evening, I haven’t eaten food or anything like that. When I took the pill – I don’t even know if you’ve seen the film Limitless with Bradley Cooper. They kind of pitched to us at the time the idea when you’re on this pill, colors are going to be more contrasting. You can hear stuff either way. You’re going to be more mindful. You can be more present, all this and that. That evening, that is exactly what happened so suddenly, everything seemed brighter. I could hear stuff from upstairs like the people talking. My thoughts were a lot clearer.
It’s like you really were on a drug.
Oh, yeah. What was even more amazing was that it was nothing more than like icing from a cake that was inside this pill. The belief that suddenly new came out of it was just phenomenal and how about then developed was even more interesting.
This is very interesting because in CVT, we often try to get someone to do drastically different behaviors in order to help change their belief system but it can be quite challenging to convince people to do that so actually in your case, you are convinced to do the different behaviors because essentially you were convinced that this pill was working and you could do things that you weren’t able to before.
What was even more impressive about it was because I’ve had friends and people that I’ve met asked me “Oh, so Derren Brown must have done something to you.” Well, actually, no, he didn’t do anything. He mostly just kind of watched how people were reacting to being on this pill. Everything that happened to me was really down to my own devices. It was all down to what I was actively doing or what I was convincing myself to do during that time. Even then, there were some very sort of like bizarre and out there moments that happen that would definitely not have happened before especially it’s even with my mindset, my creativity on things and I suppose even my limits, beliefs and stuff as well.
There was no hypnosis or anything like that involved? It was just this pill. What did he say that the pill was supposed to do?
They told us that it was used on soldiers at like Afghanistan to help them with like the war and with plowing through the most dangerous areas and stuff and that we were going to be the first kind of individuals or first kind of like normal people to be on these pills to see how it would react to like the normal, everyday person.
Did they suggest that you would become more powerful in some way or be able to do things that you weren’t able to do before?
Kind of, yeah. I mean they had said to us that it should reduce your fears and anxiety, all the symptoms that you would normally have if you were scared of spiders, heights or claustrophobic spaces and definitely within weeks. It was not even weeks. It was probably within like days from being on this pill, all of then suddenly disappeared.
When did you start doing it?
I suppose first of all, heights wise, that was one that was instantly fixed and you can see that in the episodes where after I had the injection, we’re walking down the corridor, nothing like the fourth floor in this building and I look over the balcony, I just don’t feel anything. It’s just like complete stillness in my entire body. It was mind blowing because I hadn’t felt like that before from being in that kind of experience.
Do you remember what you used to believe about that situation and then what you believed at that point?
Yeah, like I would only need to kind of walk near towards like a balcony edge even if there was like a metal barrier there or something but even just walking near it, I would suddenly have that fear of like I’m going to fall, I’m going to die or something kind of really drastic.
So quite negatively, it’s about safety?
Absolutely. Absolutely but now or at the time, I would then just walk towards the edge and just look over, I’d be like “I don’t feel anything”. That was quite interesting thing.
Same with spiders?
Yeah. I absolutely hate spiders like I’m terrified of spiders. Like growing up, like if I ever watched a horror movie that had a spider in it, literally, out of nowhere, a spider would appear, typically running towards me as well. Any spiders would scare me even not the most smallest ones would always be a concern.
You used to look out for them?
I would get incredibly paranoid about them. I would almost kind of like sweep my room before even going to bed sometimes just to make sure that there wasn’t a spider around or if I even show a shadow, suddenly, I would get really paranoid if that’s a spider.
It’s very hyper vigilant about spiders disappearing which was already sort of really got in the way of just trying to live a normal everyday life.
It definitely did get in the way, and it got quite embarrassing as well where I would have to either like ask friends and family to kill the most smallest of things that aren’t any bigger than a dog. They’re just sort of in hysterics looking around like that’s not going to hurt. That’s not going to do anything to you.
This must be really debilitating in that you must have been like “Gosh, I can’t live my life in this way” or maybe you are so redundant to life being this way, you just accepted all these challenges.
It was most certainly embarrassing. Maybe even a smidge of being humiliating as well. For that to then disappear off about a week or so like because there were occasions when I did stop seeing spiders – I remember actually one time, there was a spider, massive one, that actually kind of it was in the lounge. I saw it. I didn’t panic. It was as if I just sort of acknowledge that it was there. I was like “Right, I’m going to get a bowl. When it come back, I’m going to get rid of it.” I did. I went and normally, they would be sort of like running off and scatter. When I found it, it was still there. I remember just going up to it and just gently place in the bowl right there and sort of scooping out and cover it afterwards. I think when I had sort of taken it outside and got rid of it, I think I was like one of the most proudest moments that I’ve ever had because again, my fear of spiders is probably the worst of what any fear that I probably have. To have dealt with something that was so big that I know would’ve completely scared me to death or probably would have even run out my house and refused to go back in it or just watched it, knowing that I can’t move in case it goes somewhere. It would have to wait for hours until someone would come remove it for me. It was a really kind of proud moment that again, I did that. It wasn’t someone else who got rid of it. I did that. I did it in a really nice way as well.
So all these anxieties and fears are starting to dissipate, did you start to do anything else different in your life?
Yes, so what was interesting well, after being three months on the pill anyway, the first couple weeks, definitely, I notice the fears were kind of dissipating or disappearing but then, it started turning into a little bit of a motivational kicker. I got really good at multi-tasking and being really present in projects that I was doing. I remember at the time, I would use to write blogs and I used to kind of struggle like trying to be creative with what I wanted to write and share. It would take me like two hours to write stuff and then suddenly, I was doing them in 20 minutes.
Because your beliefs changed in some way in relation to your abilities.
Yeah and definitely like my focus on stuff as well. I was a hell of a lot more present and mindful with what I was doing that then, I would start –
That sounds like a confidence thing.
It definitely. It worked on it as well. One of the other fears I’ve had was I guess kind of being more sociable anyway with around people but definitely even in beliefs of within myself and stuff that I never thought I would be capable of, I guess, doing it and suddenly, it was like “Right, you can do this. Give it a go. See what happens.”
What were your old beliefs about social situations and then, what was the change in that through this process?
I guess with my own beliefs, I really never believed I was good enough to kind of do anything or that I kind of deserve anything good. It’s funny. Once your fears or once at least the symptoms are gone, you kind of leave space for just sort of the good sort of things to come into place, and you start kind of actually know that you can do this. Why don’t you give it a try? There’s nothing to lose here. Suddenly, like these kind of like better voices were coming in and saying “We’ll do it” and then when I was doing something and then I realized it wasn’t actually so bad, whatever the fear was that I had and here’s me, talking to people, dealing with spiders, was looking at heights or even in claustrophic spaces, I absolutely hate claustrophobic spaces. On the train, I would purposely wait until rush hour would calm down so I didn’t have to be on the sardine with other people.
It was a lot of avoidance in your life?
Yeah, definitely. It was just again fascinating for me that once all these negative thoughts had gone that I was actually kind of living my life and I was doing stuff. I don’t know where the idea got planted but something that happened that was said to me “why don’t you try and start your own business? Why don’t you give that a go?” Because you’re clearly sort of capable of doing all these other things. You don’t have to work for other people. You don’t have to kind of be at the bottom of the chain because I used to work in retail as well. Anyone who works in retail knows it’s a really tough job and you’re very expendable as well. Every single day, you’re having to deal with a lot of stress and pressure, people. I always kind of presume that that was going to be my life because I worked in retail easily for good ten years or so but from being on this pill, the idea of like “go for it, you got nothing to lose”, and I did it. Still kind of thing like six, seven years later, I’m still working for myself and I’ve kind of kept on learning new things that I’ve chosen to do even though there’s been a little bit fear in some of the stuff I wanted to either have a guy [?] at in my business or help other people with, I’ve gone for it. I’ve done it and haven’t really held myself back. It’s just amazing how those little switches in my own thought process has made a difference to my life.
It’s really amazing how the placebo effect actually works in that way. It’s so interesting because it’s similar to say CBT but CBT can take a while. You have to really persuade people to try different things. The beliefs are very, I don’t want to say completely set in stone, but beliefs are hard to change. You have to be very persuasive as a therapist to motivate people and often to get people tough enough to trust in you to try these new things. It was like on the show, they did things backwards. They change your beliefs first and then got each to do the different behaviors which then reinforced these new beliefs. With CBT, we kind of do it the other way around. We do behavior stuff first and then, we’re trying to update the beliefs and cognitions and then sort of get people to maintain it. It was like this kind of accelerated process of life changing experience which led you to have quite a different life.
Yeah, and I think for me as well, the most interesting thing was that it wasn’t down to anyone else helping me. Everything that I did was all me. It was all as well because of just shift in my own limiting beliefs.
No therapy involved.
No, I mean, it was all just self-done. I mean it really took me by surprise mostly than anything.
A lot of psychology involved but actually no intervention that we would normally do. It’s quite interesting because there was this deception involved as well. When they revealed what it really happened, the process you’ve really been through, how did you feel?
I think you’ll actually see me kind of like face palm in the end of the episode. I’m just like “Oh my God. I can’t believe that wasn’t real.”
Were you upset?
A little bit. Because when you get told that this pill is literally changing your life and it is changing your life.
Would you have stayed taking the pill for the rest of your life?
For the rest of your life, if it was real?
I definitely think so because what was interesting was even though that they told us that it wasn’t real at the end of it, that it was fake and it was just icing from a cake, what was interesting, they still encouraged us to carry on taking the pill but wean ourselves off of it so where we were having it like four a day, it went down to like three a day, then two a day, then one a day and then every other day and stuff.
Even though you knew it didn’t do anything?
No, but what was interesting was the physiology that came out of that was still the same so even though we knew now that it was all fake, it still carried on like I was still as productive as I was not knowing that it was a placebo. But definitely once, we had been weaned off of it or once all the kind of pills had run out, eventually, you do go back into kind of like your normal habit of what life was like before the placebo. So definitely, I would probably say maybe like a year down the line, like some of the fears came back, I think because of being trained so much out of the fear or being in the experiences where there wasn’t any fear, you kind of get more reference experience, and you kind of understand that actually, that wasn’t so bad. I might not like spiders but I’m okay with them. I can handle them appropriately.
And by maintaining their behavioral changes, you should maintain the belief changes. I mean if you started like picking up tarantulas and doing that just for two hours, you’d sort of really be comfortable with that again.
Yeah and even again, with like the heights or claustrophobic spaces, I guess with socializing, with meeting people and stuff is really not no way near as bad as it was back then. I mean now, I wouldn’t say effortless but it’s definitely so much easier.
So you maintained a huge amount of the changes and most importantly, the career change, I think, is like one of the biggest things.
Yeah. I can sometimes actually bring back the experience of what it was like being in the placebo by going through a little bit of like a meditation, sort of like breathing exercise. That tends to sort of at least get my focus back with bits. If anything, it was still such a phenomenal experience. Even again, everything that happened was all down to me to shift in my own thought process.
Why is it that meditation actually helps you go back there to the placebo effect?
The way I kind of explain it is it’s things to do with me just calming the mind and then as soon as I feel that stillness throughout me, it really is just being back in that situation all those years ago.
So kind of eliminating a lot of the negative thought so that you can just carry on, you can be in the present moment and do what you want to do?
Yeah, and let in even that kind of more positive sort of like voice come in as well into sort of being more of like a motivational coach in a sense and just sort of saying “Yeah, you can do this” or “Give that a try. You’ve got nothing to lose. Nothing bad is going to happen.” Being able to then just kind of start questioning any negative belief that does come into my mind really has kind of help me for kind of move forward with a lot of things and at least be more proactive in the stuff I want to do or at least try.
I think it definitely also kind of highlights the effects of medication like a lot of people go on to, for example, antidepressant medication before they really need it and then, they feel like they’ve maybe had an improvement when actually, there is just a placebo. Often, people kind of want this quick fix.
I think we all want our kind of magic pill that’s going to suddenly fix all our problems and any negativity that we’ve got. At the end of the day, we are, from what I’ve also kind of learned, is that we tend to kind of self-hypnotized ourselves. Like I am very susceptible to being hypnotized but it’s also very easy to convince myself like something is going to go a particular way but then now, knowing like how I can challenge that and question it can really kind of bring that down. Suddenly, I am able to do it or I do want to give something a go.
That’s an amazing experience to have and what I love about TV because occasionally, I do some stuff on TV is that they can set up the most extravagant process that can really create a life-changing experience for people because you wouldn’t have had that in the real world.
No, not at all.
Well, thanks so much for sharing that. I think it’s a fascinating story. I have been curious for a while as to what actually happened.
Yeah. Great stuff.
Thanks very much, Dan.
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How Derren Brown’s placebo effect experiment changed this man’s life was last modified: September 12th, 2020 by Dr Becky Spelman
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