The Open Window: The Placebo Permission Slip

Insights on Creativity by Quinn McDonald


Say the word ‘placebo’ and people’s noses wrinkle up. A placebo is a pill that doesn’t contain active ingredients, but still can create a result. Placebos are thought of as pills that don’t cure anything. 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 an active-ingredient 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.

Placebo success doesn’t have to be limited to physical cures. In one of my classes, I ask participants to make their own permission slips from blank watercolor postcards, pens, colored pencils, markers, and glitter glue—the active ingredients of creativity. As the class bends over their designs, we talk about what it takes to have creative permission to work. Some people talk about letting the housework go, others about taking time to daydream, stay in the studio and play, or put the daily to-do list away.

In some classes, people ask me to sign their slip. The request always catches me by surprise, and I prefer to encourage class participants to sign their own slip. “Give yourself permission to let go of your old beliefs,” I’ll say. But just as the belief in placebos is boosted by an encouraging doctor, the permission slip doesn’t always jump start creativity on its own. Occasionally, I do sign the permission slip, but not without some added encouragement. 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.” Giving someone permission to take time for creative work seems fair.

Since the beginning of the permission slip placebo experiment, people have found power in permission. It works. A permission slip hanging in the studio often brings along more creative time, more creative fun, and best of all, permission to work deeply and meaningfully.

Like a placebo, the permission slip takes away negative ideas and replaces it with possibility. The chance that ideas will come, that creativity will flicker and catch pushes reluctance aside, and leaves space for success. When success gets breathing room, it expands.

The people who are happy their permission slip worked—well, they were always creative. What they needed was the permission to believe it and act on it. The mind-body connection is as powerful with placebos as it is with creative permission.

Quinn McDonald is an artist and certified creativity coach who helps artists through transitions in their lives and work. You can e-mail your business-of-art questions to Quinn is the author of Raw Art Journaling: Making Meaning, Making Art (North Light Books).

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