To die, sometimes you need only believe you are ill, and as David Robson discovers at BBC Future, we can unwittingly ‘catch’ such fears, often with terrifying consequences:
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Beware the scaremongers. Like a witch doctor’s spell, their words might be spreading modern plagues.
We have long known that expectations of a malady can be as dangerous as a virus. In the same way that voodoo shamans could harm their victims through the power of suggestion, priming someone to think they are ill can often produce the actual symptoms of a disease. Vomiting, dizziness, headaches, and even death, could be triggered through belief alone. It’s called the “nocebo effect”.
But it is now becoming clear just how easily those dangerous beliefs can spread through gossip and hearsay – with potent effect. It may be the reason why certain houses seem cursed with illness, and why people living near wind turbines report puzzling outbreaks of dizziness, insomnia and vomiting.