The Placebo Effect for Guitarists

bigstockphoto_The_Brain_1713803The placebo effect is most commonly applied in medical testing when for example pharmaceutical companies are trying prove their new drugs actually work. In a very simple experiment they will split patients of a particular condition into two groups. They will give one group the new drug and the other group a placebo (an inactive substance, perhaps a sugar pill). The placebo group believes they are getting the drug when in fact they are simply getting a placebo. Often the result is that placebo group experience similar positive results to the group taking the drug. Scientists soon came to realise that the very power of suggestion can change a person’s health. Patients with everything from a minor skin rash to terminal cancer have responded positively to the power of suggestion. The placebo effect is not just some crazy witch doctor with a stick chanting in a strange language. It is real science with thousands of examples of its positive effects. Psychologists have known of the power of suggestion in relation to health for many years and along with scientists are beginning to find the answers as to why. The mind is still a very large mystery but the advancements in areas like neuroscience are moving in leaps and bounds.

So how does this apply to learning guitar?

When the doctor gives a patient a drug the patient believes the drug being prescribed will actually help to restore their health. In the patient’s mind they are now on the road to recovery and the psychological changes begin to respond physically. When someone decides to learn guitar they often go looking for a guitar teacher with the belief that the teacher will prescribe the right course of action for achieving success on the guitar. On arrival at their first lesson even before meeting their teacher the student’s mind is now focused on success. Sitting in the waiting room the student has spent both money and time to get to this point and they are feeling confident that the teacher they are about to see will prescribe the right course of action that will have them becoming a proficient guitarist in the coming months and years. This mindset puts the student on a path to success. As the saying goes ‘If you think you can or you think you can’t you are right’.

This is very much the placebo effect at work. The student believes that the very act of seeing a teacher will improve their chances of learning guitar and to some degree this explains why students who have a teacher greatly improve their chances of success. The human mind is incredibly powerful and having a belief in a certain outcome or expectation where reasonably possible can have a great effect on the actual outcome. But remember the human mind is very complex so don’t put any expectations on yourself in this regard just do whatever you can to improve your chances and this includes taking advantage of the placebo effect.

Putting the placebo effect to work might include following the advice of your guitar heroes whether that advice is scientifically proven to be true or not. If you believe it will have an effect on your playing you are giving the placebo effect a chance to work. An example may be that dressing like one of your guitar heroes may improve your playing. We know logically the clothes we wear have no effect on our fingers right? But what if by changing our image people begin to treat us differently? What if their new expectation of who we are now causes a shift in our own self image? As a teen growing up in the 80’s most serious guitar players had long hair, wore tight black jeans and a black t-shirt displaying their favourite band. Was it a coincidence that most of these guys were pretty good guitar players?

The placebo effect is very real and can have a profound effect on your ability not just to become a great guitar player but great at anything within reason.

David Hart – Program Director


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