Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Can We Scare Ourselves To Death?



A woman once told me a strange story about her husband.  When he was a teenager he stopped at a carnival to consult with a fortune teller.  She told him he was going to have a wonderful life but that he would die when he was 35 years old.  As his 35th birthday approached, he took ill and by the time he was 35 passed away.  The autopsy indicated there was no explanation of his death.  His death was an extreme example of nocebo, the opposite of placebo: he believed he was going to die, which apparently caused him to die.    

In contrast, as a positive reminder of the power of our beliefs—take the well known case of ‘Mr. Wright’, a man on the verge of death.  For some reason, Wright heard about Krebiozen,  a new cancer cure, and believed it would cure him.  He talked his doctor into injecting him with the drug, and the baseball-sized tumors in his body vanished almost immediately.  For months Mr. Wright enjoyed perfect health until he read that Krebiozen was not a miracle cure after all; the cancer returned with a vengeance.

However, the doctor pretended he gave Wright the wrong dose, but this time just injected water into the cancer-ridden man.  Thinking he had ingested the right dose of a miracle drug, again the cancer vanished, and off he went for several months in fine health until once more he read in a newspaper that the stuff he thought cured him was officially pronounced worthless.  This time the disease came back quickly and quickly killed him.  Clearly, the healing power was the man’s belief; when he lost that belief he lost the magic charm that had kept him in perfect health.  Solely by means of his own beliefs, Wright healed himself twice completely and by his beliefs also scared himself to death. 

These are strange facts.  They say something about the creative power of certain states of mind, for example--faith, confidence, imagination—versatile powers, capable of good and ill.  Walter Cannon investigated the physiology of fear and studied cases of people who died as a result of being subjected to a voodoo curse.  Perfectly healthy men die because they believe they have been enchanted or that a sorcerer has pointed the bone at them. The belief, however arbitrary and absurd, causes the vital system to crash and result in death.  And yet, as Cannon reminds us, “the implicit faith which a native cherishes in the magic powers of his tribal magician is said to result in cures exceeding anything recorded by the faith-healing disciples of the more civilized communities.” 

Why so?  Perhaps the stronger the imagination, the less inhibited by civilized doubt, the more powerful the effects. Based on much and varied data, it seems we may possess the psychical resources to kill ourselves or to heal ourselves (and others, we should add.).

But our mainstream culture isn’t interested.  Our ‘healer’ within has to compete with Big Pharma, the doctors, and a constant media blitz reminding us “to consult with our doctor” about drugs we may need.   The entire profit-focused culture is designed to make us conscious of how needy we are, not to promote the wonders of our inner potentials. And we of course know why, and I’ll respond with a sign we all recognize--$$$.

It may seem an exaggeration, but we are fighting a war for our souls, as well as for our bodies; an undeclared war, which makes it more lethal. War is being waged against the total commodification of life.  To defend ourselves against the agents of appropriation and degradation stalking us, we need to pay attention to the thoughts, beliefs, and feelings that we cultivate. For lying in wait are the exploitation of our fears and resentments.

In the practice self-awareness, we need to note how our words may unwittingly affect other people—sometimes with fatal effect.  J. C. Barker, an English M.D., published a book in 1968, Scared to Death: An Examination of Fear, its Causes and Effects. Barker begins with a story about how he inadvertently used one ill-chosen word that caused his first patient to die of a heart attack.  The one word merely and barely connoted imminent death, but in that context was perceived as stressful enough to stop a vulnerable patient’s heart.

We forget how powerful beliefs, attitudes, and expectations can be.  A reminder that we can scare ourselves to death or heal ourselves from lethal diseases makes me wonder.  Are my beliefs--my way of responding to the world--primed to help or hinder, heal or harm me?  Am I planting landmines for myself or clearing the obstacles from the road ahead?

How often do we take inventory of our inner resources?  Do we have the skills necessary to avoid being scared to death?  All sorts of saboteurs of soul life feed on our weaknesses, ready to exploit our fears to gain power over us. One thing is worse than being scared to death: being scared into living as if we were already dead.     



6 comments:

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Miguel Roig said...

Many in the biomedical community believe that much of the benefit of supplements, and even the benefits of many traditional pharmaceuticals, are just that: A placebo effect. But, yes, I bet that Mr. Wright ultimately succumbed to 'Give-up-itis' (see https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0306987718306145?via%3Dihub).

So, how can we even begin to change our own personal mindset, let alone that of others, that each of us has the power to heal? It's not easy given that each of us has lived our entire lives according to a modern, materialistic worldview, even if some of us subscribe to somewhat more flexible versions of such views. BTW, this question reminds me of an exchange I had with my therapist who was of the psychoanalytic persuasion. I was in my late 20s and had good health insurance (it was the 80s!). At the time of he exchange I was a little impatient with my progress in therapy and so I expressed my concerns to him. His reply went something like this: "Hey, pal, it took you 20+ plus years to become who you are today, right? And you expect me to change you just in the few hours (I had been going twice per week for a few months) that we have spent together?"

Maybe all we need is a good Ayahuasca trip!!! :) But, think of what THAT would do to all of those mental health professionals, the pharma and biomedical industries, etc.!! :O



lynette said...

This is fascinating to me. There's a tendency to discount the placebo effect ~ but it is still an effect. Why ignore it? I used to be in a program which suggested if we weren't feeling particularly happy, joyous, or free, we "act as if." Oddly enough, acting a certain way leads to the act becoming a reality.

There's so much here I could write a book but I will say that I'm irritated by the tendency in metaphysical circles to assume that if we are spiritually well, all will be well physically and in all other ways.

Why would I, a differentiated aspect of the magnificent One, come to human school, pick up the Lynette costume, shake it out, and then try to be what I already am? Increasingly, I suspect we are just playing here, experiencing, and my purpose, if there is one, is to embrace it all without judgment. All of it.

Oh well. Rambling, but I mostly just wanted to say thank you. I'm really enjoying reading this page.

Michael Grosso said...

Thanks for your worthy rambling--and I appreciate your sweeping openness of spirit and share your pique with nit-picking niceties--except sometimes, when they're crucial.

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