Thoughts That Kill – The Nocebo Effect

By Anthony Gold

In the 1700s, a teaching assistant at a medical university in Vienna was very much disliked by his students. So much so that the students ambushed the TA, blindfolded him, and told him he was about to be decapitated. They bowed his head onto the chopping block, and then dropped a wet cloth onto the back of his neck. Convinced it was the kiss of a steel blade, the assistant died on the spot.

While the data is a bit sparse on the veracity of this claim, modern research is exploring much more intently the mind’s ability to both heal and harm. The placebo effect comes from the Latin “I will please”, and every clinical trial randomly assigns a cohort of patients to a placebo in the form of an inert pill.

Much of the research shows that belief can often lead to improved outcomes. By believing this pill will help, many patients show an actual physiologic response.

But there’s a curious corollary to the placebo effect. Many of these patients also report puzzling side effects such as nausea, headaches, or pain – symptoms that are highly unlikely to come from an inert tablet. What’s causing this phenomenon is that all patients are given the exact same health warnings regarding the medication – whether they are taking the real drug or the placebo. And yet, the expectation of symptoms produces physical manifestations in many placebo takers.

It’s called the nocebo effect.

Latin for “I will harm”, this effect is far more common than researchers believed. For instance, in trials for Parkinson’s disease, nearly 65% of placebo takers reported adverse events as a result of their pill.

In the early 1980s, many Hmong refugees in the US – with no history of illness – began dying in their sleep. The deaths were purported to be related to a belief in deadly night spirits.

It is tempting to believe that our thoughts just happen, often the result of external stimuli. And anyone who’s tried to quiet their mind through meditation knows how hard it can be.

It is your thoughts alone that cause you pain. (W-pI.190.5)

Nothing except your thoughts can attack you. (W-pI.26.4)

The truth of matter is that our thoughts don’t simply show up. They have a source, and that source is the mind, either the ego mind or the unity mind.

With the ego as its source, our thoughts will be anything that reinforce the belief that I am here, I can suffer, and it’s not my fault. And from these thoughts come all our experiences and emotions. We can rightfully say that choosing the ego mind is buying into the nocebo effect. I will harm.

Conversely, from the unity mind, our thoughts are exclusively that of love and union. And all our experiences are blissfully peaceful.

Join us in Monday’s class where we’ll explore the nature of thought – and how everything in our world is the result of our thoughts, nothing else. I look forward to seeing you then.

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