Now though the latter isn’t likely to be true (more on that later) that the mind has some pretty impressive powers is hard to be denied. And this power goes both in a positive and a negative direction. However, negative mindset can dedinitely harm your health.
For example, have you ever heard of the placebo effect’s evil twin brother? It’s called the nocebo effect and if you thought the placebo effect was weird, wait until you hear what the nocebo effect can do. Just to give you a quick refresher: the placebo effect is that weird thing where even though you didn’t take any medicine, your body recovers just because you thought you did. It can have quite a profound effect.
But that’s nothing compared to what the nocebo can do.
Let’s look at some interesting examples. One quite common case of the nocebo effect is where people take a drug in a double-blinded trial and then start experiencing the side effects associated with the drug.
Nothing so weird, you’re thinking, but then it turns out that they weren’t taking the drug at all but were, in fact, taking a placebo all along. Yup, that’s right. The placebo effect is just as capable of giving you the negative side effects as well as the positive ones.
And the Nocebo effect can be highly infectious as well, with people sometimes ‘catching’ nocebo illnesses from other people. In 1962 a group of factory workers claimed they were made ill by some kind of an insect that had come with the cloth that they’d been working on, but no cloth was ever found. The sickness was psychologically induced and spread. Weird, huh?
It doesn’t end there either. There is another story from the 18th century, where a group of students didn’t particularly like a medical assistant. They kidnapped him, put his head on a block and told him he was going to die by decapitation. They then dropped a wet cloth on his neck.
That was when the joke turned deadly serious, however, as the man actually ended up dying. So convinced was he that his time was up that it actually was.
That isn’t the only story about death associated with the nocebo effect either. A medical report stated that man was diagnosed with cancer in 1979 and told he only had a month to live. He did indeed die, but an autopsy revealed that his cancer had not, in fact, progressed at all and that he probably ended up dying from his belief that he was going to die alone.
Now if you can kill yourself, actually kill yourself, with your mind alone, imagine what negative thoughts can do?
For example, the Lancet reported that the more strongly the Chinese Americans believe in their astrological system, the more likely they are to die if they believe they have been born under the wrong star sign and get a disease their belief system tells them is particularly inauspicious. This effect was so strong that it could reduce their life expectancy by up to 5 years compared to a randomly selected group of non-Chinese Americans.
The fact that it was how strongly they believed in their astrology that predicted how badly they would be affected is the clincher, here. It tells us that it is their beliefs that caused them to actually die earlier (otherwise all Chinese Americans should have been affected equally). It was their expectation that killed them.
Well, first of all, we shouldn’t shake our heads in disbelief at these people that die earlier and feel all smug about it. There is a good chance that our own belief systems are taking years off of our lives as well. It’s just that we have not found out about it.
This entire craziness about gluten is a great example. The research shows that Gluten has no harmful effects on people that don’t actually have a gluten intolerance (i.e. most of us) and yet lots of people now believe they feel ill when they eat gluten.
And the probably do. But only because they believe they’re gluten intolerant. The thing is, the gluten has to be replaced with something and quite often it ends up being sugar – and that is actually bad for you.
And there are doubtlessly much more examples where we’ve got some idea in our head and because of the nocebo effect and other effects like it cling on to them because we believe that they are health. In this way, we’re actually shortening our life, making us less healthy and, yes, even killing ourselves. Now that’s a pretty drastic thought! It also means we’ve got to make certain that we’ve got the right goals and the right ideas. Even just doing that, without doing anything else, can already add years to our lives.
And finally, I just wanted to return to the cancer thing. At the beginning of this article, I mentioned how certain people believe that they can cure cancer with their minds alone. The problem with these people is that they sometimes find ‘support’ for their claims.
It works a little bit like this. A person, let’s call her Sue, has cancer. They buy this book I mentioned above and start practicing what’s in there. Then something weird happens. Cancer suddenly goes into remission.
Sue believes, as most people would, that this is because of the book. It is nothing of the kind, however. Cancer, instead, went into spontaneous remission. This sometimes happens. We don’t know why. But because we’re causative creatures, which means we’re always trying to say one thing caused another (like in storytelling) we come to believe that our actions somehow have an effect.
Now people should believe whatever they want and if they believed this in the privacy of their own home, more power to them. Beliefs, as we’ve seen, are powerful things. The thing is, people who sell these medicines use stories like Sue’s to claim their products actually work.
And there they end up using people’s mindsets to do some very negative and harmful things.