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The Dark Side of the Placebo Effect: When Intense Belief Kills

Shelley Adler, author of Sleep Paralysis: Night-mares, Nocebos, and the Mind-Body Connection, comes to a stunning conclusion: People can be killed for their beliefs in the spirit world. “If you were born under a bad sign, you died five years younger from the same diseases as people born under good signs. But only if you believed in Chinese astrology.”

Huh?

Something was killing Hmong men in their sleep, and no one could figure out what it was. There was no obvious cause of death. None of them had been sick, physically. The men weren’t clustered all that tightly, geographically speaking. They were united by dislocation from Laos and a shared culture, but little else. Even House would have been stumped.

Doctors gave the problem a name, the kind that reeks of defeat, a dragon label on the edge of the known medical world: Sudden Unexpected Nocturnal Death Syndrome. SUNDS. It didn’t do much in terms of diagnosis or treatment, but it was easier to track the periodic conferences dedicated to understanding the problem.

Twenty-five years later, Shelley Adler’s new book pieces together what happened, drawing on interviews with the Hmong population and analyzing the extant scientific literature. Sleep Paralysis: Night-mares, Nocebos, and the Mind Body Connection is a mind-bending exploration of how what you believe interacts with how your body works. Adler, a professor at the University of California, San Francisco, comes to a stunning conclusion: In a sense, the Hmong were killed by their beliefs in the spirit world, even if the mechanism of their deaths was likely an obscure genetic cardiac arrhythmia that is prevalent in southeast Asia.


Her argument amounts to a stirring and chilling case for the power of the nocebo, the flipside to the placebo effect. While placebo studies have grown in importance, the nocebo effect has not been studied well in scientific literature, in part because of the ethical issues involved in deliberately doing something that might harm people. Limited studies suggest that it is real and it is powerful. For example, doctors have found that patients made to feel anxious need larger amounts of opiates after surgery than other people. They’ve found that pretending to expose people who say they are sensitive to electromagnetic radiation to cell phone signals can give them debilitating headaches. Even patients’ level of side effects from arthritis medication seem determined by those patients’ beliefs about those medicines. Logically speaking, if the evidence shows the upside of belief, why wouldn’t we believe in the downside, too? And why wouldn’t we believe that the intensity of the downside would vary with the intensity of the belief, even if those beliefs were about something unscientific, like spirits or astrology?

If you’re still unsure that the nocebo effect could actually lead to premature death, Adler cites one stunning example of the effect from China. A team of researchers found that Chinese Americans die younger than expected “if they have a combination of disease and birth year which Chinese astrology and medicine considers ill-fated.” That is to say, if they were born in a year that was astrologically linked to poor lung health, they would die an average of five years earlier from lung-related disease than someone born in some other year with the same disease. Similar effects were not found in the white populations around them. And how much sooner you died depended on the people’s “strength of commitment to traditional Chinese culture.”

Think about that for a minute. If you were born under a bad sign, you died five years younger from the same diseases as people born under good signs. But only if you believed in Chinese astrology.

Results like these seem improbable, or anti-reason, or something. But Adler’s book is an attack on the “Oh, come on!” form of argument. She uses her understanding of both science and traditional belief structures to argue for what she calls “local biology”.

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