Can you believe yourself into being more creative?

Is simply believing that you’re creative enough to make it so?

What if you could take a sugar pill (or a concoction of natural juices), knowing they won’t affect your thinking, but becoming more intelligent and creative as a result anyway?

Research from the past several decades is beginning to indicate that, believe it or not, it’s possible to think your way into being more creative. In a way.

In 2010 placebo researcher Ted Kaptchuk ran a study with two groups of people who suffered from habitual pain. One group received no treatment, while the other group was given fake medicine in bottles labeled “placebo pills.”

The result? Patients who knew they were taking fake medication reported feeling better anyway. Up to twice as better than the group which received no treatment. Kaptchuk compared the results with that of medicinal trials that run with real medication, signaling that even though patients knew they were taking a fake medicine, they felt better anyway.

In an article for Harvard Magazine, Kaptchuk and article writer Cara Feinberg explore the science of believing yourself into actually experience physiological and psychological changes.

When patients who are in pain are typically given drugs, one thing the medicine does is cause the brain to release natural, pain-relieving chemicals like endorphins and dopamine. When given a placebo (in the right environment and through the right means), the brain will release those chemicals naturally, on it’s own.

For medicinal patients with physical ailments, this is an inspiring development occurring in medicine today. Without having to take any outside drugs the body can heal itself. But how does this knowledge relate to creativity?

It turns out that simply believing in something may cause changes in the brain to occur, regularly through electrical or chemical changes.

When studying patients suffering from depression who are given a placebo, the results are often that the patients experience very real electrical and metabolic changes in the brain.

So simply believing that you’re doing something to make you more creative (like taking a workshop, changing your diet, creative habits, etc.) can make you more creative.

But there’s more to the straightforward science here than simply believing.

Kevin Byron explains elegantly in his blog post from 2006 titled The Creativity Placebo:

“For a placebo to work one or more of the following factors are required: 1. The person undergoing treatment has invested a certain amount of belief in a positive outcome already. 2. The person must have certain expectations. 3. The environment must be conducive to the…process.4. There must be some kind of ritual associated with [results] in applying the placebo. [and] 5. There must be some earlier memory of [expected results.]”

Kaptchuk’s studies over the past several decades confirm these requirements.

It’s not simply enough to believe that you’re creative without expecting the belief to work, without having an ideal environment for the expected outcome, or any of the other five elements Byron outlined. This is typically what many creative courses and creativity coaches promote to those who participate.

If you really want to be more creative, simply surrounding yourself with creative works you’ve done, being involved in a creative community, conducting small examples of creative thinking (like a simple puzzle or game), even regularly reading about creativity online can help yield positive changes (quite literally). So go ahead and pop that sugar pill before doing a daily sudoku and thinking it will make you more intelligent, because it just might.

“Believe” photo by Jon Nicholls. “Brain scan” photo by Indi Samarajiva.