Let’s watch our medicine?


I’ve been thinking a lot about the power of video/filmmaking, how much of our current work is about getting audiences to feel something so they’ll do something later. Be moved, then donate. Be excited, then volunteer. Be impressed, then join. But ever since meeting Dr. Alia Crum, an Associate Professor at Stanford studying the placebo effect (for example, when sugar pills have similar or even better outcomes to actual drugs), I’ve been marinating in the idea that maybe videos themselves could be THE THING. Like, instead of inspiring you to do something else, they could instead make a change happen in that moment, even a physiological one. Because, after all, research shows you can tell a patient that they are being given a placebo, and that the placebo has sometimes been curative, and more often than not you will still see positive outcomes. This is not unlike watching a movie. You’re in a theater with 300 other people. You fully know there’s no actual creepy clown kidnapping children, but apparently your body actually freaking changes! Really...even at the hormonal and cellular level.

Part of Dr. Crum’s intention has been to find a way for doctors to use what makes placebos so effective, without having to trick and potentially endanger a patient. Because they’ve also found that a goodly portion of what makes an actual drug work is also due to the placebo effect. In other words, the patient believing a given drug will work means it has a better chance of being effective. She says much of this is attributed to mindset. If doctors can alter the mindset of a patient, they can greatly improve patient outcomes. And what, you may ask, are the crazy, impossible-to-achieve factors her research found that can bring about this potentially life-saving transformation? A doctor who is both warm and competent. Yep, that’s it. You can raise a patient’s chance of surviving some terrible disease just by being nice to them and at least appearing to know what you’re doing.

So, what does that mean for videomaking? Perhaps we need to start thinking bigger. How can we use video to not only bring in volunteers, donations, get people to join a movement, etc, but also to actually alter an audience’s experience of the world in a way that will change their lives for the better? In ways that have been tested and researched and have elicited mindshifts that have been shown to be beneficial? It could be that we merely need to use video to convince people of an org’s competence and warmth, like a doctor...my previous blog post about clients’ lack of confidence in NGOs might point to this...Or maybe it’s about creating various kinds of digital interventions, a pathway the FDA has recently approved?

As a filmmaker, I’m used to intuiting where a story is heading, what the heart of it is. Could I ever get comfortable if, instead of market-testing to see how/if our movies are making people happy enough to buy more, or perfecting video formulas we know will make people cry and donate money, we also started researching how movies/videos were changing people? What if you could create a video that was made in a way that was shown to be highly effective at undoing prejudice? Or calming anxiety? 

While every video doesn’t have to cure cancer, this is all a prompt to think more deeply about what video can do not just for your organization’s health, but the health of those you serve.  I remember a composer relation of mine saying “music is not massage.” But now with binaural beats and other sound therapies, it very much has been (though “music” might not be the right word). Are movies the next art form to be delivered therapeutically?

Arne Johnson