In a class discussion about the philosophy of mind, a student who was a nurse told me a sad story. We were discussing some of the unusual powers of the mind. Most of the examples that came up were of a positive and creative nature. But not all. That’s when the nurse spoke up. She told us a story about her husband. When he was a teenager on a lark he went to a fortune-teller. She looked at his palm and announced that he was going to have a happy married life. After a slight pause, she then added that he was going to die when he was thirty-five years old. On his thirty-fifth birthday, the nurse’s husband keeled over dead. An autopsy uncovered no physical cause of his death; he was perfectly healthy. The only explanation is that his belief that he was going to die on that day killed him.
This apparently is a widely reported phenomenon. After my student’s story I found a book by J.C. Barker, MD, Scared to Death: An Examination of Fear, Its Causes and Effects. The main shocking point of this book is that people of all ages and cultures, people, moreover, in perfect health, die because they believe their time has come, as predicted by someone or implied by some oracle or sign. How the ‘mere’ belief that one is going to die may cause a perfectly healthy person to die, quickly, efficiently, cries out for explanation.
First, it should be noted that according to Barker, at the time of publication of his book in Britain (1968), public interest and use of fortune-tellers, mediums and psychics was popular and widespread. It should be said: no matter how advanced, scientific, and rational a community, the need to consult possible sources of extranormal guidance will always remain. The reason is that things happen in ways that transcend rationality. The need and hope for higher forms of assistance will often assert itself. So people try all sorts alternative methods of scoping out the future.
Dr. Barker was inspired to research self-induced death when he witnessed a patient, a homeless laborer, brought to the hospital in a state of terror, crying out that he was going to die. Barker was unable to calm him down. “Then to our horror and amazement he suddenly stopped crying, fell back into the bed and quickly expired”(3). A post-mortem exam proved he was in perfect health. The author devotes a chapter explaining how pervasive the fear of death is, and how that fear drives sophisticated nations like France and England to abound with fortune-tellers.
He provides a harrowing chapter on auto-suggestion and voodoo. “If a native believes himself to be “hoodooed”, “hexed”, “bewitched”, or “conjured”, he pines away and dies unless someone can be found who he considers has greater voodoo powers . . .”(18) Similar cases of hexing are cited in Australia, Africa, America and so forth, demonstrating the devastating power of sheer belief. The witch-doctor in effect by virtue of curse or hex destroys the consciousness and will to live of the targeted victim. Cases are given of victims tottering on the edge of death who are persuaded by a counter-spell and are instantly restored to health.
Barker shows how politics combined with destructive magic can have murderous consequences, and “shows the extraordinary extent to which hatred and scheming machinations can build up between natives and so prepare the victim for voodoo-type death . . ..” (23). The malignant psychic influence through abusive language that Hitler unleashed on European Jews illustrates the dark side of the psyche in action. It explains the incredible rise to power of a psychopathic liar like Donald Trump as well as the bizarrely perverted phenomenon of QAnonism. The intent is to degrade the person by the magic of destructive language.
We need here to quickly underscore another background factor to the dark side of psychic life. That is the phenomenon of the “evil eye”—the malignant side of the Freudian superego. There is an ancient and quite universal archetype—superstition, we could say—that we are always exposed to an evil eye overlooking us and disposed to do us harm. The omnipresence of this evil potential is proven by the universal use of charms, amulets, and talismans—all designed to protect us from this ever-lurking dark energy poised in the shadows and waiting for a chance to pounce on us in whatever manner it can devise. Another way we can describe this is to speak as neuroscientist Paul Maclean does of the “paranoid streak” in us humans, a byproduct, he suggests, of our reptilian brain. So we can’t help being suspicious and we are easily manipulated, even, in certain situations, to suck the life force out of ourselves.
There are two points we can make to help us not to succumb to our shadow side.
First of all, the destructive power of belief mentioned above can be converted into creative and health-giving power. The nocebo can kill is. The placebo can cure us. There are plenty of stories of miraculous healings, more, I trust, than stories of healthy people dying because of what of some stupid, irresponsible fortune-teller might have said.
The second antidote to indulging in self-destructive ideas and feelings is to learn to educate yourself about how your mind works. Dr. Barker found that imbibing the values of a reason-and-truth honoring civilization is the best way to guard against succumbing to the black magic of our worst emotions. Love and truth are the most powerful antidotes to the disease of self-destruction.