I'm going to stretch my writer's license on today's post, as there's something I really want to write about. Over the weekend I watched Derren Brown's Fear or Faith, a two-part programme on Channel 4 about phobias and placebos.
The programme started with a big pitch about a new drug that is designed to eradicate fear. Derren said that the drug had been used by soldiers, but now he wanted to test the drug on civilians. Of course, a few minutes later you realise that the drug is actually a placebo.
Derren selected three people to try the new drug, under the pretence of it curing phobias. My only big criticism of the programme was the people that he selected. The first was a guy who was phobic of heights. He could only cross the bridge in his home town if his friends were with him to distract him. By the sounds of it, his phobia wasn't too intense to begin with. Perhaps because Derren's plan wouldn't work on someone with a stronger phobia, although this wasn't disclosed.
The second guy suffered with social anxiety - a phobia of social situations, conversations with strangers and confrontation. He had no problem talking to the camera, though, and said that he would go up to a cashier in a shop but wouldn't like to. Again, not a particularly severe phobia by the sounds of it.
The third was a woman who was phobic of singing in public. This is not a common phobia, and not one that is debilitating in any way shape or form. The cynic in me believes that Derren selected her because it made for a nice ending to the programme - her singing in front of a live audience.
I suffer with a phobia, and only fellow phobics can understand the sheer, vivid terror that comes with facing your fear. There really are no words to describe the feeling - and I have a thesaurus on my phone.
Aside from that, the programme was fascinating. The placebo was initially administered by injection, in a purpose-built building made to look like a pharmaceutical company. The three participants were warned of a few made-up side-effects, and it was amazing to watch them describe how their vision changed after the injection. The guy who was afraid of heights then looked down from the top floor and seemed to be immediately relieved of his phobia.
As the participants continued taking the placebo over the next few weeks, they were exposed to their fears. It was amazing to see how a brain hard-wired with a phobia was instantly altered simply by the belief in a drug. The whole concept of placebos is fascinating, but I've never seen a television programme address it so head-on. Phobias and anxieties originate in the brain - but once they've formed, you'd never think they could be so easy to undo.
I'm not sure, however, that it said as much about phobias as it did the intelligence of the human race. Within half a second of the programme beginning, I knew the drug was a placebo, as I'm sure most people watching did. I really do wonder how the three main participants didn't cotton on to the fact that Derren Brown is more interested in the mind than he is in testing new drugs.
So how does all this fit in with the word of the day? Watching it was a nice present, and gave me hope that I will one day be stupid enough to take a placebo that tackles phobias.