Limitless: How a Powerful Placebo Took My Student from Bottom to Top in One Year

The names and locations in this story have been changed, but what I’m about to write is a true account of a life changing event. People might think giving brain enhancing drugs to a child unethical, but I ask that you leave your cultural preconceptions at the door, and judge me by results.

Meet Edward, a ten year old boy who has never had much success with school, the sort who has lots of certificates for ‘turning up’ and ‘trying hard’, but never really won anything. The only thing which separated Edward from the other bottom set students was his sudden request for a private tutor. So, at the beginning of his final year of primary school, Edward and I became acquainted, and like so many students who receive private tuition, his knowledge, grades and confidence began to grow. Mental maths tests came back with better results, work was completed faster and more accurately, and when the teacher asked questions Edward’s hand was up.

Edward was beginning to change.

At the end of one lesson, as I debriefed the family on another day of progress, Edward’s parents asked me to coach their son through the 11 Plus. This exam is the doorway to England’s elite grammar school network. It is designed to take the top 1% and find the absolute brightest amongst them. My background has taught me that if you want something bad enough, you can make it happen, and even though Edward was still a long way behind the top ‘grammar material’ children in his class, he was determined. When I asked for the school’s thoughts on Edward’s mission, the parents shifted position and their brows furrowed. Edward’s teacher, Mrs White, had scoffed when Edward asked to take the test. That was it. The race was on.

The months rolled by and progress was steady, but Edward had started too late, and the practice papers just weren’t scoring high enough. He could learn the material, sure, but we needed more time, and the exam was just a few months away. If we were going to do this, I needed to match Edward’s boldness, to do something unexpected and daring – to think big!

Edward’s parents and I talked, I told them about a white haired psychology professor from university who taught me about the power of the placebo effect over the body, I told them about hypnosis, and we talked about the film, ‘Limitless’ – a popular film about a man who takes a real ‘genius drug’. It was a bold move, but it just might work; we were going to double Edward’s IQ by giving him an experimental new brain drug.

Over the next month, in our end of lesson debriefings, we abruptly asked Edward to leave the room. We talked (in slightly louder voices) about a new miracle drug from Japan that can radically boost people’s mental performance. This drug was going to to be banned soon because it gave students an unfair advantage. The drug was expensive, at £1,000 a course, but the results from the cutting edge trials were well worth the cost. Edward’s parents deliberated, I persuaded, and all the while curious Edward had his ear to the door and listened attentively.

At the end of next lesson, a sheepish Edward was asked to come clean, he awkwardly confessed that he’d been listening in to our conversations these past few weeks. “Well.” I asked, “You know about this drug, and what it can do for you. Do you want to take it?” We reminded Edward of the immense cost and the absolute necessity of keeping this secret, but there was no stopping him, Edward believed this drug could make him smart, and he was determined to have it.

He took the bait. Edward now believed in Father Christmas, that carrots make you see in the dark and that a miracle Japanese brain drug was going to double his IQ. All we needed now was a convincing placebo drug.

Next week, a well packaged box arrived stamped with arcane Japanese symbols. Alongside the package were a few Japanese news articles discussing the drug. Edward couldn’t read Japanese, but I was happy to translate for him. Most importantly, inside the mysterious box, were 10 meticulously wrapped capsules which looked to the adults a lot like multivitamin tablets, but to Edward they looked like his big chance.

That night, Edward watched the film ‘Limitless’. The stage was set.

Right from the beginning of the next lesson, Edward was completely different. His body was upright, his movements measured, his eyes steady and intense like a world class boxer at the start of a career defining fight. The now serene Edward looked more like a Buddhist monk than a 10 year old boy. Edward opened the books with confidence and began answering questions like he had never done before. He was faster; he was sharper; and whenever he came upon a question that he didn’t understand, he kept at it because he expected to get it right. And as Edward expected to get questions right, so he did. To this day I have never seen a sudden improvement so conclusive as the day Edward attacked those exercise books. The practice papers came back with higher and higher grades. Could we have pulled this off…

A couple of weeks later, Edward sat in the hall of his local grammar school amongst the best and brightest students from all across his district. He gave the toughest exam of his academic career his best shot, and he left the exam room with a feeling that he did himself proud. It must have felt grand to be soaring with the eagles.

The family and I waited nervously for his exam results, and when they arrived the news was bitter-sweet. In Edward’s letter was a distribution graph showing the results from all the grammar school candidates for that year. Edward’s result was right in the middle across maths, English and verbal reasoning – not enough to win him a place. I can’t deny that I felt a little down that we didn’t pull through and get to prove the scoffing Miss White wrong.

However, out of the ashes of defeat, grow the roses of success. In the end, we did prove Miss White wrong. Edward the underachiever stormed his year six SATS later that year and scored the best possible grades – a 5A in both English and Maths. He even beat one of the other grammar school candidates – who wasn’t scoffed at – from this class. If you aim for the stars and miss, you’ll hit the sky. Edward entered high school by slipping neatly in to the top sets in every possible subject, where he remains to this day as a year 9 student. Edward the underachiever is now a high achiever, and, as a top set student, is expected to earn some of the best GCSEs in the whole town. With grades like that, all career doors are swung wide open, and anything is possible for Edward.

Performance enhancing drug, placebo, self-confidence… Whatever you call it – it worked!

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