The future is influenced by what you remember.
It is decided by what you believe.
I have a story to tell you.
In 1944, as Allied forces stormed the beaches in southern Italy, Dr. Henry Beecher, a graduate of Harvard Medical School and Chief of Anesthesiology at Massachusetts General, was serving at a military base hospital. Overwhelming casualties had depleted medical supplies. When Dr. Beecher realized there was no morphine left to anesthetize a soldier before a surgical procedure, he told the soldier he was injecting him with morphine but injected him with saline instead.
To Dr. Beecher’s astonishment, the soldier relaxed exactly as if he’d received anesthesia and, more importantly, and significantly, withstood the procedure without any painkiller and without going into shock.
While no written document verifies this anecdote, Dr. Beecher’s colleagues said it was mostly likely true as the facts that follow are well established. After the war, Dr. Beecher returned to Harvard intrigued by witnessing the power of the mind over the body and began researching the possibilities in earnest. In 1955, he published “The Powerful Placebo” in the Journal of the American Medical Association. He has been known as “the father of the placebo effect” ever since.
Today, the majority of drugs that fail in late-stage trials, after Big Pharma has spent millions of dollars on their development, fail because they can’t beat the power of belief alone. Now the gold standard in drug testing, the placebo effect demonstrates a significant number of subjects will get well simply because they believe they are going to get well.
So, it turns out that Rudyard Kipling was both prescient and correct when, in 1923, he said in a speech to the Royal College of Surgeons in London, “Words are the most powerful drug known to mankind. They enter into, and color, the minutest cells of the brain.”
Words are so powerful they can affect you even on a subliminal level. In 1982, Dr. Lloyd Silverman, a New York research psychologist at the Veterans Administration Regional Office, ran a newspaper ad offering free desensitization for people with insect phobias. Twenty women responded. After dividing the women into two groups, Silverman exposed them to photos of roaches, bees, centipedes, and spiders. Using a tachistoscope, an instrument that flashes images or words across a subject’s visual field so quickly they are not consciously discernible, Silverman interspersed the photos in each group with a sentence flashed on the screen for 4 milliseconds. The control group subconsciously absorbed the totally neutral sentence, “People are walking.” Without knowing they had seen it, the experimental group had read, “Mommy and I are one.”
The group subliminally absorbing the phrase “Mommy and I are one” had a significantly higher success rate at becoming desensitized. Later, researchers replicated the results, and Silverman found that the phrase “Mommy and I are one” also led to greater success with those quitting smoking and in weight loss programs. Apparently, feeling safe and protected is empowering and transforming.
The power of words.
When my kids were young and became ill, instead of interpreting fever as a sign of illness, I told them it was a sign they were already getting well. “You have a fever?” I’d say, my cheek grazing a small, hot forehead. I’d sit down on the bed, surrounded by posters of rock groups and runners (Steve Prefontaine: “To do less than your best is to sacrifice the gift”), and say, “That’s actually good news! Your body has marshaled forces! Right this minute, it’s working to make you well. I’ll bet you’ll be fine by morning.” It often worked. And when it didn’t, we saw the pediatrician. But we placed our attention on health, not illness, and it seemed to have an effect.
When I accidentally crack a kneecap on the pine coffee table by the fireplace, I tell myself the pain has already faded at the moment of injury. I sit down on the hearth, the crackling fire at my back, and I can feel the pain immediately dissipate. The brain is an expectation machine. It believes what you tell it, and it even interprets body language.
When you smile, even for no reason, even just because you are holding a pencil between your teeth, your brain takes in the message that something good must be happening, and you feel better.
Everything is story, and your brain has evolved to respond to it. When I began this column, I said I had a story to tell you and when you read those words, your brain released a small surge of endorphins in the belief intriguing information was on its way. So, I start every day with story. You could call it prayer as well. Either way, it is the power of words at work.
After expressing my gratitude very specifically for the gifts of the day before and for the innumerable gifts of this life, like you, I offer up a story about the next 8 hours as if they have already happened. I am specific and positive; I work from a basis of good intention and goodwill. I write the story down. I write of editing 100 pages of a manuscript, getting across the Bay Bridge without delay, and having a laughter-filled lunch with a friend I love. I imagine healing sent to those deeply challenged at the moment, of a new client call in which we both hang up utterly delighted at the obvious potential in our collaboration.
You get the idea. At least, I hope you do. I hope you experiment as well. I hope you use the power of words today. I am.
Smile. You are going to have a marvelous morning; you will accomplish all you hoped to accomplish and have a surprisingly delightful amount of time for sheer entertainment this afternoon. You will receive a flash of insight about a problem you’ve been harboring that releases all energy from it, and your unconditional joy will radiate from the inside out all day. You are, in fact, a magnet for miracles.
Don’t believe me?
Sometimes, you can throw open the cell door, and the prisoner won’t budge. And sometimes, new ideas are met with resistance bordering on hostility. And to that, I say this:
Mommy and I are one.
Laura J. Oliver is an award-winning developmental book editor and writing coach, who has taught writing at the University of Maryland and St. John’s College. She is the author of The Story Within (Penguin Random House). Co-creator of The Writing Intensive at St. John’s College, she is the recipient of a Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist Award in Fiction, an Anne Arundel County Arts Council Literary Arts Award winner, a two-time Glimmer Train Short Fiction finalist, and her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her website can be found here.