It’s an amazing thing that matter that controls many of our very living essentials and lots in between. It’s also still a relative unknown as to how all of our brains work, help or hinder us. What’s for sure is the mind is more powerful than the sword.
We’ve heard of the placebo effect and some of you may have heard of the Nocebo effect too, which essentially is the polar opposite of he first.
A placebo is a belief that something we are given, told, taken etc will make us better and literally we think ourselves towards that goal. Nocebo does the very opposite…
Try this gruesome story on for size…
Doctors have long known that beliefs can be deadly – as demonstrated by a rather nasty student prank that went horribly wrong. The 18th Century Viennese medic, Erich Menninger von Lerchenthal, describes how students at his medical school picked on a much-disliked assistant. Planning to teach him a lesson, they sprung upon him before announcing that he was about to be decapitated. Blindfolding him, they bowed his head onto the chopping block, before dropping a wet cloth on his neck. Convinced it was the kiss of a steel blade, the poor man “died on the spot”.
Every clinical trial now randomly assigns patients to either a real drug, or a placebo in the form of an inert pill. The patient doesn’t know which they are taking, and even those taking the inert drug tend to show some improvement – thanks to their faith in the treatment.
Yet alongside the benefits, people taking placebos often report puzzling side effects – nausea, headaches, or pain – that are unlikely to come from an inert tablet. The problem is that people in a clinical trial are given exactly the same health warnings whether they are taking the real drug or the placebo – and somehow, the expectation of the symptoms can produce physical manifestations in some placebo takers.
Consider the near fatal case of “Mr A”, reported by doctor Roy Reeves in 2007. Mr A was suffering from depression when he consumed a whole bottle of pills. Regretting his decision, Mr A rushed to ER, and promptly collapsed at reception. It looked serious; his blood pressure had plummeted, and he was hyperventilating; he was immediately given intravenous fluids. Yet blood tests could find no trace of the drug in his system. Four hours later, another doctor arrived to inform Reeves that the man had been in the placebo arm of a drugs trial; he had “overdosed” on sugar tablets. Upon hearing the news, the relieved Mr A soon recovered.
We can never know whether the nocebo effect would have actually killed Mr A, though Fabrizio Benedetti at the University of Turin Medical School thinks it is certainly possible. He has scanned subjects’ brains as they undergo nocebo suggestions, which seems to set off a chain of activation in the hypothalamus, and the pituitary and adrenal glands – areas that deal with extreme threats to our body. If your fear and belief were strong enough, the resulting cocktail of hormones could be deadly, he believes.
More positively, education itself may help sap the nocebo effect of its power. Mitsikostas, for instance, tries to explain to his patients that they have to be wary of their own expectations. “We have to make the patient understand that it’s an internal fear that we both have to try to fight,” he says.
The mind-body connection, he says, is something that we can ill afford to ignore, despite our amazing new medical tools. “For millennia, medicine was basically placebo – by using expectation, magicians used the will to heal,” he says. “It is not enough to overcome disease – but it is indispensable.”