Great Expectations – The Power of the Imagination

This is one of a series of blogs commissioned for The Power of Placebo – a national programme of events that accompanied our performance, Placebo. The ‘placebo response’ describes an effect which occurs when a person is given a ‘fake’ or ‘inactive’ treatment but experiences an improvement in health regardless. Scientific research has also shown that factors such as the colour or size of pills can impact on their effectiveness. This programme of events brought together leading scientists, cultural thinkers, artists and medics to explore how our beliefs, relationships and environments can affect our health for better or for worse.

As part of The Power of Placebo, Amy Shelton spoke at the Agents of Change Symposium on Saturday 3 November 2018, and led Bee Myths, a workshop exploring the relationship between humans and the natural environment alongside author John Burnside on Sunday 4 November 2018, both of which took place at the Wellcome Collection, London.

‘Great Expectations – The Power of the Imagination’

by Amy Shelton, artist and Artistic Director of Honeyscribe.

As Brian Eno so elegantly surmises in his illuminating essay The Big Here and Long Now, the imaginative acts human beings are capable of conjuring, and the power of the mind to influence the body, can be an extraordinarily powerful response.

“Humans are capable of a unique trick: creating realities by first imagining them, by experiencing them in their minds. When Martin Luther King said “I have a dream”, he was inviting others to dream it with him. Once a dream becomes shared in that way, current reality gets measured against it and then modified towards it. As soon as we sense the possibility of a more desirable world, we begin behaving differently, as though that world is starting to come into existence, as though, in our minds at least, we’re already there. The dream becomes an invisible force which pulls us forward. By this process it starts to come true. The act of imagining something makes it real.”

Our ability to track what is taking place in the brain through the rapid advances in technologies in neuroimaging over the last decade, has proven that the placebo / healing response is a neurological fact. The key factor in its efficacy is contingent on how we actually think about the medical treatment or intervention at play. It is that faith in its efficacy, an act of the imagination, that is the catalyst that is needed to activate a neurological response that activates our bodies ability to heal themselves. This is both extraordinary and thrilling because it taps into a power within us that is irrational, instinctive, unquantifiable, ancient and wild. Rather than a trick, the neurological process in which the brain builds its own expectations in response to a wide range of cues can become a potent self-creating medicine of the mind.

As an artist, I am drawn to evaluating what we are capable of when we allow ourselves to tap into, invigorate and activate our active/ wild mind. So many artworks throughout the centuries clearly express artists profound understanding of the inviolable connection between the creative imagination and wellbeing. Intention and the quest to create an emotional response is where art and healing meet at an interesting intersection. Artists, poets, architects and composers are finely attuned to the desire to provoke a deeply felt response in their audiences through creating states of mind that resonate with an enlivening and contagious transference of energy and imaginative intention. The ritual enacted between doctor and patient, shamanic healer and sufferer, also takes place between artist and audience.

Placebos are not always in the form of medicines, and merely changing environments can trigger the placebo effect. Environmental Psychologist Roger Ulrich’s ground-breaking 1984 study View Through a Window, focused on the impact of the environment on health outcomes and had a huge impact on hospital design and marked the beginning of thinking about the effect of the built environment on patient wellbeing. His research indicated that when patients have views of the natural world, they feel less stress and anxiety, require less pain medication and have shorter stays in hospital fostering better clinical outcomes.

Earlier this year researchers from the department of experimental Psychology at UCL tracked a phenomenon in which a theatre audience’s heartbeats start to synchronise. That engaging with art can create chemical changes in your body seems entirely obvious on one level. We have all experienced the emotional charge that state-altering music can evoke; whether it be listening to the haunting ancient Aramaic rendition of Our Father, majestic Mongolian throat singing, or Thomas Tallis’s sublime polyphonic 16th century Anglo-Catholic motet Spem in Alium.

In Florence Nightingale’s pioneering work Notes on Nursing (1859) she clearly recognised the importance of art in healing, and observed how art has a therapeutic effect on patients. She recognised how art can be a powerful tool in creating an atmosphere or emotional articulacy induced by colour, form and intention and how that can elicit a powerful healing response that is a potent self-creating medicine of the mind.

‘Little as we know about the way in which we are affected by form, by colour and light, we do know this, that they have an actual physical effect. Variety of form and brilliancy of colour in the objects presented to patients are actual means of recovery’.

In my new collaboration with acclaimed author John Burnside – Bee Myths – in development over this winter, we are exploring the role of myth, folklore and the contribution that imaginative acts make to our daily well-being and our ability to avoid or successfully deal with the threat of illness and dis/un-ease by exploring how humans make myths in the pursuit of healing. The peripheral states induced by ritual, connection to the land and being attuned to the non-human world through close observation and listening in is at the heart of our investigations. This work will extol how stories and myths are potent and essential conduits, across cultures and time, which might help us to re-think and re-connect to a more sustainable future. The series of work celebrates the role bees play in the imagination, and the role mythmaking plays in the account we give ourselves of the world. More than anything, Bee Myths will take a broad view of the role of the imagination and its power to transform and stimulate responses that might actually make us feel better.


Brian Eno, The Big Here and Long Now
Florence Nightingale, Notes on Nursing (1859) Chapter 5.
UCL report into audience heartbeats
Roger S. Ulrich, View through a window may influence recovery from surgery Science, Volume 224, Issue 4647 (Apr.27, 1984).


Image credit: Detail Florilegium: Honey Flow by Amy Shelton (Wellcome Collection)