Psychosomosis - the Placebo and Nocebo Effects
Curing and Causing Disease with the Mind

People can exert conscious control over their body and mental states, sometimes with long-term results. I hope that by describing what it is possible to do, people will learn to take more control of their mental and physical health. 'Psychosomosis' is sometimes used to mean medical symptoms that derive from purely (subconscious) psychological factors such as ulcers caused by stress1, but I intend to use it in the wider sense; of the effect of the mind on the body, for good (i.e., meditation preventing cancer) and ill (depression causing increased illness). I advocate the strengthening of willpower in order to prevent psychosomatic illness and also for physical health self-empowerment. I sometimes call the curing of disease through mental willpower (or hypnosis) reverse psychosomosis.

1. Psychological Diseases and the Body

A psychosomatic disease is one in which there are physical symptoms, such as ulcers, caused by a mental process, such as a maladaptive stress response. The following is the definition from the Oxford Companion to the Mind (Gregory 1987), followed by a paragraph on his description of typical psychosomatic diseases:

Book CoverDiseases are designated as psychosomatic if two conditions are fulfilled: if (i) the symptoms are accompanied by demonstratable physiological disturbances of function and (ii) the illness as a whole can be interpreted as a manifestation or function of the patient's personality, conflicts, life history, etc. The first condition distinguishes psychosomatic illness from psychoneurosis, particularly conversion hysteria, in which, by definition, the physical symptoms are not accompanied by demonstratable physiological disturbances. [...]

In Human patients [...] there tends to be a remarkable consistency in the psychosomatic disease, which tends to recur in a stereotyped form. The pattern is peculiar to each patient and more or less fixed. It could be argued that a genetic predisposition as, for example, in the asthma-eczema syndrome, to some extent determines the type of psychosomatic disorder that is likely to recur. [...] From time to time there may be a 'syndrome-shift'. Thus a patient who has had several attacks of atopic dermatitis develops bronchial asthma, or perhaps, later in life, rheumatoid arthritis. A sufferer over many years from migraine develops ulcerative colitis, or a patient who has had a recurrent peptic ulcer develops essential hypertension.

"The Oxford Companion to the Mind" by Richard L. Gregory (1987)1

Stan Gooch investigates more extreme cases involving apparently-supernatural phenomenon. His published works explain how in all resolvable cases the causes have been psychological. He describes some typical triggers and typical symptoms:

Some hysterical sufferers break out in a skin rash or boils whenever (say) they have to visit their mothers, or have asthma attacks when they approach the district where they grew up. Here we can recall the woman whose hip bled every time she saw her handicapped son put on his hip support. A mental problem can in fact be converted into virtually any form of physical symptom or illness - and so can be a very serious position indeed.

"The Origins of Psychic Phenomena: Poltergeists, Incubi, Succubi, and the Unconscious Mind" by Stan Gooch (2007) [Book Review]2

Before we continue, we must make sure that we do not confuse psychosomatic illnesses (such as those mentioned above, that frequently have measurable physical symptoms) with other forms of disease that lack such symptoms.

2. The Placebo Effect

2.1. The Effects of Suggestion and Expectation

The placebo effect is a positive effect on an illness or medical condition, or on a health-related outcome, that results from suggestion and expectation, whether or not the underlying treatment actually works. There is a link between mood and mental states of mind, and our immune system. There is also a link between psychological effects and the psychosomatic element of disease. The placebo effect is particularly prevalent in certain areas such as pain relief and stress. The following summary involved a study where patients were told to lay in a scanner whilst being delivered electric shocks to their hand, in order to study neural pathways in the brain:

Book CoverHalf of the people were then supplied with a fake pain-relieving cream. Even though the cream had no analgesic properties - it was just a hand moisturizer - people given the pretend cream said the shocks were significantly less painful. The placebo effect eased their suffering. Wager then imaged the specific parts of the brain that controlled this psychological process. He discovered that the placebo effect depended entirely on the prefrontal cortex, the center of rational thought. When people were told that they'd just received pain-relieving cream, their frontal lobes responded by inhibiting the activity of their emotional brain areas (like the insula) that normally respond to pain. Because people expected to experience less pain, they ended up experiencing less pain. Their predictions became self-fulfilling prophecies.

"The Decisive Moment: How the Brain Makes Up Its Mind" by Jonah Lehrer (2009)3

A programme at Harvard University experimented with asthma inhalers. One group had an inhaler which contained an active ingredient (as normal), another group were given sham inhalers with no active ingredients (a fake) and another group were given acupuncture. It isn't amazing that the real inhaler helped the participants' lung function by 20%, nor is it even amazing that the fake treatment helped by 7%, because we already know that psychological comfort helps asthma sufferers. What was amazing is that all groups reported that the treatment they were given helped by the same amount, even though two of the treatments were only a third as effective.4. People easily mistake the placebo effect for real medicine.

Completely sham treatments such as homeopathy work solely through its indirect psychological effects. "Almost any substance such as pure water or a salty solution can serve as a placebo. However, the placebo effect can be highly specific. Thus, a placebo taken in expectation of a stimulant drug will typically increase heart rate whereas one taken in expectation of a tranquillizer will reduce it"5.

Book CoverCharles Fort summed it all up succinctly. "Eclipses occur, and savages are frightened. The medicine men wave wands - the sun is cured - they did it." Half the successes of medical quacks are exactly of this sort.

The other half are due to the fact that many of life's ills are wholly or in part psychosomatic. If a patient with such complaints has faith in a doctor, regardless of how bizarre the doctor's methods may be, he often will be miraculously cured. And, of course, the larger the following the doctor has, the more the patient's faith is augmented. Moreover, if dozens of Mrs. Smith's friends are chattering about infra-red healing, the stronger will be her desire to become part of this trend - an initiate who can talk about her experiences with the new type of treatment. When everyone is seeing flying saucers, you naturally would like to see one yourself. [...] Just as every faith-healing rivivalist, no matter how strange his doctrines, will have astonishing platform successes, so every modern witch doctor, no matter how preposterous his rituals, will always find patients he can heal.

"Fads & Fallacies in the Name of Science" by Martin Gardner (1957)6

The placebo effect is strong enough that it continually distorts medical and psychological studies into the effectiveness of health products and a frequent cause of rejected studies is that they do not take effective steps at stopping the placebo effect. It can make products seems effective when they are not - and it can even do the same for surgical practices.

Robert Carroll points out how the placebo effect is the main way by which people come to think that "alternative" medicine is actually effective - in this case, acupuncture:

The patients who thought their IVs contained a powerful pain reliever required 34% less of the analgesic than the patients who weren't told anything about their IVs [...]. Their requests for the analgesic differed dramatically. The only significant difference among the three groups was the set of verbal instructions about the basal infusion. [...]

You name your alternative treatment and you will find many advocates ready to testify that it works. Yes, placebos really do work! Only a person who does not understand the placebo effect would claim that acupuncture can't be a placebo since it was effective. We know from the studies that have been done on acupuncture, homeopathy, energy healing, and the like that they are no more effective than a placebo or making no intervention. This means that these treatments will have many satisfied customers as long as people are susceptible to suggestion and classical conditioning, believe in the effectiveness of treatment, and have it administered by someone who is seen as a knowledgeable and trustworthy healer.

"Unnatural Acts: Critical Thinking, Skepticism, and Science Exposed!" by Robert Carroll (2011)7

In the 1950s doctors operated on patients suffering from angina (which often leads to heart attacks) by bundling some blood vessels together that were near the heart, expecting to stimulate growth. The patients then suffered less pain and required fewer drugs, and could walk further without pain. It was discovered quite a while later that the surgery wasn't actually making any difference to the blood vessels. The success was due to the effect of the patient's minds on their bodies. This was tested by telling people they were undergoing surgery for their heart and putting them to sleep for it, but, not actually doing it. These patients also showed good progress as a result of the non-surgery. This was an early realisation of the power of expectation and psychology in medicine.5

Sometimes the cause-and-effect is easy to see: If you tell men, for example, that a particular brand of deodorant is particularly effective at attracting women, those men will indeed attract more women than other men using the same deodorant who were merely told it was ok. The effect is greater when it comes from a trusted source, and works because the belief in the effect increases confidence (which actually does help attract women). Likewise, Professor of psychology, Ellen Langer, "told cleaning personnel in Boston hotels that the considerable exercise they got every day in their job satisfied government guidelines for living an active lifestyle. Their activity level did not change, but their perspective did, and they soon lost more weight and body fat than control subjects did. Langer attributes outcomes such as this one to the placebo effect"8. Something about the suggestion changed their behaviour. Perhaps by thinking themselves fitter, they adopted more of the identity-of-a-fit-person and ate healthier on the basis of their new healthy identity.

2.2. Illusion, Bias and Observer Effects

Such unexpected effects have been studied in greater and greater detail by medical researchers, and it has emerged that placebo effects come in various forms. Some notes here are taken from Dr Steven Novella9:

Most of these processes can make treatments appear effective even when they are not, and in many cases they can mask and hide the true underlying problems, even though they also help relieve some symptoms. So although placebo-effects are often described as "mind over matter" in reality the mixture of psychological effects, physiological effects, reporting biases and the like, complicate the matter.

3. The Nocebo Effect

3.1. The Negative Effects of Suggestion and Expectation

Our expectations about life cause certain experiences, both in how we interpret events, to how we consciously put the world together, and affect our very senses such as sight and hearing. Suggestion and expectation are brothers-in-arms, and many psychosomatic diseases result from our expectations about our own reactions based on what we think is real. It is common that a person dislikes a food, and winds them self up about it to such an extent that consuming the food will make them sick. So far so harmless, but similar effects can be serious. A case from 80 years ago recently appeared in the New Scientist:

Late one night in a small Alabama cemetery, Vance Vanders [name changed] had a run-in with the local witch doctor [... who] told him he was about to die and that no one could save him. [...] Vanders took to his bed and began to deteriorate. Some weeks later, emaciated and near death, he was admitted to the local hospital, where doctors were unable to find a cause for his symptoms [...]. Only then did his wife tell one of the doctors, Drayton Doherty, of the hex.

New Scientist (2009)10

The next morning, after much thought, the doctor told the family he had found the witch doctor. He performed another ritual, carefully inspecting his instruments, and administered a drug that made the man sick. He discretely produced a green lizard and pretended it had been secreted by the ill man, " 'Look what has come out of you Vance,' he cried. 'The voodoo curse is lifted.' Vanders did a double take [... and] drifted into a deep sleep. When he woke next day he was alert and ravenous. He quickly regained his strength and was discharged a week later"10.

The cause of the man's illness was his expectation and fear of illness caused by the witch doctor. The clever doctor proscribed an equal but opposite psychological effect. For some time, priests and other representatives of the unknown have been able to change a person's expectations about bodily ills and 'heal' them through suggestion. If the source of the information is given credence, then the effects are pronounced.

These effects can include anticipation of the symptoms of illness.

Around 60 per cent of patients undergoing chemotherapy start feeling sick before their treatment. "It can happen days before, or on the journey on the way in," says clinical psychologist Guy Montgomery from Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York. Sometimes the mere thought of treatment or the doctor's voice is enough to make patients feel unwell. This "anticipatory nausea" may be partly due to conditioning - when patients subconsciously link some part of their experience with nausea - and partly due to expectation.[...]

New Scientist (2009)10

The Researchers asked a group of students to inhale a sample of normal air, which all participants were told contained "a suspected environmental toxin" linked to headache, nausea, itchy skin and drowsiness. Although they were actually inhaling normal air, many of them developed the suggested symptoms. The effect was greater in women who had seen others suffer from the alleged symptoms (one group of subjects saw a woman inhale the air and develop these symptoms). This can serve to make entire nations ill; if (for example) a detergent manufacturer plays up the risk of bacteria, suggestible people will indeed become ill from it. The solution is to remain skeptical about threats and cures promoted by industry.

A patient who was diagnosed with end-stage liver cancer in the 1970s died within the timeframe predicted by doctors. Investigation showed that the doctor's prediction was actually wrong - the man was not due to die from the physical effects of the cancer. The patient's expectation led to his demise. The New Scientist article debates the benefits and risks associated with the extensive "side effects" warning of medicines, nothing that:

Many patients who suffer harmful side effects, for instance, may do so only because they have been told to expect them. [...] The severity of these side effects sometimes matches those associated with real drugs. [... Researchers who ran a study of this found] that if you hear of or observe a possible side effect, you are more likely to develop it yourself.

New Scientist (2009)10

Expectation can have real psychosomatic effects on the body. Take Derek, who was depressed and took all of his anti-depressants as a suicide attempt. He was taken to hospital where he collapsed. His blood pressure floored. He had also been taking part in a trial of a new experimental antidepressant. But a doctor arrived who was involved in the trial and revealed that Derek was in the control group, and that the pills were completely inert - they were placebos, containing no drugs. All of Derek's symptoms were created by expectation that if you take too many pills, you might die. Upon learning the truth Derek was tearily relieved, and his symptoms disappeared within 15 minutes. Anthropologist Robert Hahn of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia, USA, confirms that "the mere belief that one is susceptible to a heart attack is itself a risk factor. One study found that women who believed they are particularly prone to heart attack are nearly four times as likely to die from coronary conditions as other women with the same risk factors". Derek's belief about his pills, and people's fears about their condition, contributes to their own demise.10

The cure to psychosomatic illness is often correct information delivered by a relevant professional - once the patient learns that there is no poison, disease, or threat, their body stops generating the psychosomatic reaction as their mental state returns to normal. The brain controls all of our immune systems, glands, etc, so that mental states can have pronounced effects on the normal operation of the body. Calm the mind and you can dispel diseases that were caused by the mind.

3.2. Somatoform Disorders and Conversion Hysteria

In somatoform disorders, the individual complains of bodily symptoms that suggest a physical defect or dysfunction - sometimes rather dramatic in nature - but for which no physiological basis can be found.

"Abnormal Psychology" by Davison and Neale (1997)11

In the The Oxford Companion to the Mind's definition of psychosomosis, quoted to the right, it mentions "conversion hysteria". This is what some psychologists call "somatoform disorders", where patients complain of physical symptoms, but no physiological problems can be found. In psychosomatic disease, the symptoms include physical components (often visible), whereas in somatoform disorders the physical symptoms are missing. For example, hypochondria, anorexia nervosa and mass hysteria are somatoform disorders, but, asthma attacks brought on by emotional disturbances are psychosomatic (accounting for 37% of cases of asthma)12.

An old case can be seen to sit in a gray area, where it is hard to distinguish between forms of hallucination, and, forms of somatoform disorders:

A poor lunatic fancied his body increased to such a size, that he dared not attempt to pass through the door of his room. He declared he saw himself that his body was far too large to make it at all possible to go through such an opening. The physician attending him believed that nothing could more effectually cure this error of the imagination, than to show that the thing dreaded could be actually and easily accomplished. He caused the patient to be thrust forcibly through it. The poor fellow, struck with abject horror at the expectant idea, to his mind, of his certain fate, shrieked that he was in agony, that he was being crushed to death, and almost at once expired!

"The Supernatural?" by Lionel A. Weatherley (1891)13

It would be interesting to note what neurologists such as Oliver Sachs make of such cases.

3.3. Mass Hysterias Reflect Societal Beliefs

The nocebo effect (the negative effects of suggestion and expectation) are the opposite of the placebo effect (the positive side of such factors). The former appears when people expect to be ill, and the latter occurs when people expect to get better such as when given medication.

The nocebo effect can even be catching. Cases where symptoms without an identifiable cause spread through groups of people have been around for centuries, a phenomenon known as mass psychogenic illness.

New Scientist (2009)10

Psychosomosis, as we have seen, is related to hysteria; which is the paranoid belief that one suffers symptoms when in reality there are none. It should be easy to see that hysterical symptoms result from mental processes. Mass hysteria is especially common amongst schoolchildren. For example, in a school in Shelkovsk, Chechnya "symptoms included convulsions, nausea and breathing difficulties. The illness spread to neighbouring schools. Local doctors suspected mass poisoning, but when a delegation of medics arrived from Moscow, they attributed it to mass hysteria"14. Even when there is no actual virus, poison, or physical cause, children can "pass on" symptoms. Symptoms are real and fall in line with what the patients expect to suffer from. "Mass hysteria, or medically unexplained epidemic illness, has been documented since medieval times. Simon Wessely, a director of the King's Centre for Military Health Research at King's College London, says such outbreaks tend to reflect a society's beliefs". Importantly, Dr Wessely states that the most effective way to stop the epidemic and stop the symptoms is to explain that rumour and suggestion are causing them. [...] Once this has happened, "symptoms vanish within days"14.

What we see here is that, like this page recommends, explaining to people that mental outlook has an effect on physical health can allow people to exercise more control against illness. Schoolchildren's symptoms disappear when it is explained that no poison was found; and, hysterical symptoms disappear when the true causes are empathetically explained by a trusted professional. (Beware that just telling people that the symptoms are their own 'fault' is wrong and does not make things better).

Another example that blurs the boundary between psychosomosis and hysteria is that many aspects of alcoholic drunken behaviour is cultural and caused by social upbringing rather than biology, meaning that the apparent symptoms are brainal rather than purely somatic.

3.4. The Risk of Mobile Phones: A Psychological Quagmire for Some

Although there is widespread, there is no health risk from mobile phone radiation15. In experiments investigators have found that some people are sensitive to the idea of radiation from mobile phones use. When scientists scan their brains, they find that pain receptors flare up when the patients are told they are being subjected to the same electromagnetic fields that mobile phones use. Most people, however, are not affected. These electro-sensitives were, however, not actually subjected to any mobile phone radiation (or any other kind). As they lay there, the investigators told the subjects that they were turning on the mobile phone radiation. The patients who thought they were sensitive to it registered pain responses. Those who didn't think they were affected by it felt no pain. This episode was reported in The Economist (2008)16. No subjects were exposed to anything at all, yet, some had psychologically programmed themselves into pain responses through self-identifying as people who were sensitive to mobile phones. This is a mixture between hysteria and psychosomosis.

If people can cause themselves to be sensitive to certain stimuli even when the stimuli isn't real and doesn't really present any risk at all, it can makes things awkward for society as a whole. Protests against mobile phones and calls for regulation, further investigation and tests have cost money, but the cause of the problem is personal paranoia, not radiation. This paranoia translates, as it does in psychosomatics, into measurable symptoms. Quack remedies, supported by opportunistic salespeople, offer products that rely solely on the placebo effect to 'cure' those affected by such psychosomatic illnesses:

A growing industry of fraud artists is taking advantage of the fact that many of the supposed symptoms of EMF appear to be psychosomatic. They are offering a broad variety of quack remedies that will absorb 'harmful' EMF or otherwise shield the user. These products range from pendants worn around the neck to a patented $727.50 'i-H2O activator' that 'structures all the water you use.'

Skeptical Inquirer (2009)15

This story should be told wide and far because it goes to show what is possible: I bet that self-sensitising in this way is the cause of many minor complaints. We have seen that such psychological effects can go as far to cause ulcers, skin rashes, etc, but it makes sense that lower down on the scale is a whole portion of society afflicted by lesser nuisances that they have convinced themselves into. Education that such psychological clumsiness is possible has helped cure cases of mass hysteria, and general education on psychosomosis would likely help large numbers of people.

4. Psychoimmunology

4.1. Moods and Disease

A mental 'fighting spirit' has been shown to be an effective aid to combating (physical) cancer17. How can this be? A leading psychologist, Richard Gross, explains that psychoimmunology involves studying how emotion, mood and optimism/pessimism affect our immune systems and susceptibility to disease, and elaborates on how:

Book CoverAn important way in which stress may result in disease is through its influence on the body's immune system [...]. The study of the effect of psychological factors on the immune system is called psychoimmunology. People often catch a cold soon after a period of stress (e.g. final exams) because stress seems to reduce the immune system's ability to fight off cold viruses. Goetsch and Fuller (1995) refer to studies that show decreases in the activity of lymphocytes, 'natural killer cells' (a particular type of white blood cell which normally fights off viruses and cancer cells), among medical students during their final exams.

A study of Greer et al. (1979) in England of women who had been diagnosed as having breast cancer (and actually had a mastectomy) found that those who reacted either by denying what had happened or by showing a 'fighting spirit' were significantly more likely to be free of cancer five years later than women who stoically accepted it or felt helpless. [...]

The study by Stone et al. (1987) [...] found that changes in mood (that are influenced by daily events) are linked to changes in the level of antibodies contained with immunoglobulin A (IgA), a substance found in tears, saliva, bronchial and other bodily secretions. [The] higher the level of positive mood, the higher the level of antibodies.

"Psychology: The Science of Mind and Behaviour" by Richard Gross (1996)18

The link is not just one-way. Diseases can cause depression because of the reactions of our immune system.

The immune response to illness can cause depression. Recently scientists have pinpointed an enzyme that could be the culprit. [...] In the new study, immunophysiologist Keith Kelley and his colleagues at the University of Illinois [implicated] an enzyme called IDO, which breaks down tryptophan [...]. "If you block IDO, genetically or pharmaceutically, depression goes away" without interfering with the immune response, Kelly explains. The research makes a solid case that the immune system communicates directly with the nervous system and affects important health-related behaviours such as depression.

Scientific American Mind (2009)19

Psychology and biology have become blurred: Our minds effect the biological functioning of our body. This does not surprise materialistic biologists, who know that the mind itself is a part of the body, and that it is controlled by our nervous system which is commanded by the brain. Emotions that arise from the brain can be used as part of the feedback system to change the way the body works, because the brain is not only effect by, but is also in charge of, the body.

4.2. The Long-term Health Benefits of Dealing Well with Stress

If uncontrollable stress affects health [...] then will people who exhibit [...] pessimism be more vulnerable to illness? Several studies have confirmed that a pessimistic style of explaining bad events (saying, "It's my responsibility, it's going to last, and it's going to undermine everything") makes illness more likely. [...] Even cancer patients appear more likely to survive if their attitude is hopeful and determined (Levy & others, 1988; Pettingale & other, 1985). One study of [cancer patients, showed that] those who participated in morale-boosting weekly support group sessions survived an average of 37 months, double the 19-month average survival time among the nonparticipants (Spiegel & others, 1989). [...] Beliefs, it seems, can boost biology.

"Social Psychology" by David Myers (1999)20

We see in the above examples that stress is the emotional factor relevant in most of psychoimmunology. It has already been found that those with bad stress responses are more likely over the long term to suffer from ill health.

In their 1981 book Present and Past in Middle Life, Dorothy Eichorn and her colleagues report a significant relationship between mental health early in life and physical health during maturity. Those subjects who showed emotional stability and controlled responses to stress as adolescents had far better health at age 50 than did those subjects who had poor stress reactions when young.

"Understanding Human Behavior" by James V. McConnel (1986)

A group of researchers in 2006 studied the effects of various forms of god-belief on stress and anxiety. They looked at low- and high-income brackets by race, and found that individuals in most groups who believe in a powerful God who was actively involved in life, had lesser anxiety. Except for one group; low-income whites, amongst whom belief in such a God correlated with increased stress. For many, it seems that belief in a provident God leads to reduced stress. It should be expected therefore that religiosity has a measurable effect on the long-term prevalence of disease that are easily effect by psychoimmunological factors.21

5. Meditation

Some people learn to control certain bodily functions through meditation. Heart rate and oxygen consumption can be reduced dramatically, and, those who practice transcendental meditation over the long term can expect health benefits such as less heart disease and even, according to one study, less likelihood of developing cancer.

Meditation has been defined as a clearing or emptying of the mind through a narrowly focused thought process; the special word or phrase (the mantra used in Transcendental Meditation is an example of this. [...] Meditation, originally practised in India and other Eastern countries, became popular in the West in the late 1960s, as part of the 'flower power' phenomenon [...]. Since then, meditation has been studied by psychologists [...] There are many reported cases of yogis who manage to control their autonomic functions quite voluntarily through meditation [...]. A famous example is Ramanand Yogi, a 46-year-old Hindu who, in 1970, through the practice of yoga ('union') [...] used just over one-half of the calculated minimum amount of oxygen needed to keep him alive (and during one hour, he was averaging just one-quarter).

"Psychology: The Science of Mind and Behaviour" by Richard Gross (1996)22

As our psychological states impact our immune system, scientists have studied the effects of forms of meditation on long-term health. Dr Schneider, who heads the centre of natural medicine and prevention at the Maharishi University of Management, Iowa, USA, published results of one such long-term study:

A new study shows that transcendental meditation, a relaxation technique developed by the Indian guru [Maharishi] and made famous when [The Beatles] dabbled with it in the late 60s, can reduce death rates by nearly a quarter. Robert Schneider, who led the research, said: "The study found that in older people with mild high blood pressure, those practising transcendental meditation had a 23% lower risk of death from all causes". The results appear in the American Journal of Cardiology. "Some practised transcendental meditation, while others tried different techniques, such as progressive muscle relaxation. The transcendental meditation group had 30% fewer deaths from heart disease and 49% fewer from cancer. [...] Previous research has found that transcendental meditation can lower stress hormone levels and blood pressure."

David Adam, The Guardian (2005)23

Zamora's tolerance for pain was tested by Dr Joshua Prager of the UCLA School of Medicine. According to Prager, Zamora's ability to withstand pain was 'off the charts,' most likely due to meditation and self-hypnosis.

Skeptical Inquirer (2008)24

The text on psychoimmunology above has already explored other studies designed to examine how our mental states can affect our immune system. Meditation can influence our physical bodies in areas where symptoms are typically known to be susceptible to psychosomatic and placebo effects. One such area is the experience of pain.

6. Hypnosis

Touching the skin with a pencil may cause blisters if the participant has been told it is red hot.

"Psychology: The Science of Mind and Behaviour" by Richard Gross (1996)25

Under hypnosis, people can hallucinate incredibly real (-seeming) events in their minds, making themselves think they are flying, that they are talking to people who are not really there, etc. Also, latent talents and confidence can be brought out: when there are no social consequences the self is more capable of a broader range of actions.

Suggestible subjects can develop serious and real physical symptoms and injuries on command, some of them quite spectacular and unbelievable, such as blisters, seizures, open wounds and stigmata. Cures for existing diseases can be brought about through the same method, even for diseases, as we shall see below, that do not otherwise respond to medical treatment.

In a seemingly impossible and complex case of reverse psychosomosis, a boy who was born with a progressive skin disease was healed through suggestion whilst hypnotized. Mental processes of the brain, in their complex interactions with the body, are responsible for the biochemical changes that would have been required to cure the disease. Some primitive part of the brain must have been responsible, since birth, for causing the disease and the suggestion for it to stop allowed a normal epidermis to grow.

Probably the most daunting and famous case of hypnosis on record concerns a boy aged sixteen who suffered from a congenital, progressive, structured disease of the skin, present from birth. The condition, ichthyosiform erythrodermia complex, is resistant to all forms of treatment. In it, a thick, black, horny layer covers most or all of the body, and this layer itself is covered with further warty excrescences. The skin, if such we can call it, is as hard as a fingernail. Any bending or flexing of any part of the body causes painful cracks, which ooze bloodstained serum. The condition also gives rise to an objectionable smell that others find intolerable.

On 10 February 1951, in the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, the boy concerned was hypnotized and told that his left arm would clear of the disease. Five days later the horny layer softened, broke and fell off, to reveal normal new skin beneath. In later hypnotic sessions the remainder of the body was successfully treated. The whole case was observed throughout by specialists and reported in full in the British Medical Journal26.

"The Origins of Psychic Phenomena: Poltergeists, Incubi, Succubi, and the Unconscious Mind" by Stan Gooch (2007) [Book Review]27

A physician who appeared in a British television documentary series on hypnosis narrated the following story. He was treating a boy who was suffering from the so-called 'total allergy syndrome'. These individuals have been described as being 'allergic to the twentieth century'. They have to be cared for in a sterilized, sealed environment, and supplied with filtered air and special foods. The doctor was attempting to increase the boy's resistance by the use of hypnosis. At one point he began telling the boy that he (the boy) was having a picnic on a mountainside, but as the doctor described the imaginary scene, the youngster began to go into spasm. [...] The horrified physician realized that his patient was undergoing terminal spasm [and] summoned a helicopter, which swooped down and carried the boy up into the pure stratosphere above the earth. As the doctor quickly described these imaginary events, the boy's spasm subsided and he began breathing again.

"The Origins of Psychic Phenomena: Poltergeists, Incubi, Succubi, and the Unconscious Mind" by Stan Gooch (2007) [Book Review]27

Hypnosis changes the relationship between our conscious and subconscious selves, and therefore allows different factors to affect our nervous system than when in a normal mental state. This allows the possibility of changing psychosomatic diseases through suggestion, where (of course) those diseases are within biochemical reach of the body's biochemistry. In other words, it can be effective if the cure can result from changing the levels of produced biochemicals under the nervous system's control.

7. Stigmata

Hypnotized and entranced subjects can develop spontaneous (but not random) wounds, such as patients who are touched with a (room temperature) pen that they are told is red hot, and develop real blisters as a result of the imagined heat. Wounds like these are frequently associated with powerful memories; one subject would develop weals and blisters around his wrists similar to wounds he received 10 years earlier when tied up. A 37 year old female patient described her father's childhood beatings, and while doing so "bleeding whip marks appeared on her legs, buttocks, shoulders and hands. These were witnessed, photographed and reported by physicians, and had moreover to be dressed and treated [...]. Two further cases of this same phenomenon are also reported by Dr Moody"28.

Stigmata is where the wounds of Jesus Christ spontaneously appear on the hands and feet. Similar processes must be at work in stigmata as during the injuries that can manifest under hypnotism and trance. It may be that some still believe that an actual, real, supernatural Christ causes these (they normally afflict saints and devout Christians) but there is clearly room for these wounds to be entirely psychosomatic and self-generated. Despite this, some Christians and paranormalists still claim that stigmata are the result of spiritual contact with Christ.

However, the argument for the wounds of the stigmatic (the spear wound in the side, the marks of the thorns on the head, the nail marks in feet and hands, and so on) having been produced by contact with the actual spirit of Christ collapses completely on examination. For example, the stigmatics regularly produced (and produce to this day) nail wounds in the palms of their hands - as shown in many paintings and carvings of the crucified Christ - whereas in fact the real historical Christ, like all crucified victims of those days, was nailed to the cross through the wrists. More telling still is the finding that the particular marks (size, shape, position) on some stigmatics are identical with those on the particular crucifix or painting before which the stigmatic habitually worships. Here we seem to identify the exact source of inspiration which the unconscious mind has employed.

"The Origins of Psychic Phenomena: Poltergeists, Incubi, Succubi, and the Unconscious Mind" by Stan Gooch (2007) [Book Review]29

8. Philosophical Issues

The separation of diseases into 'mental' and 'physical' is essentially arbitrary as psychological factors have a basis in neurology. Therefore psychological and psychosomatic disorders are physical, biological, and in this reductionist sense it makes no sense to call any phenomenon 'mental' or psyche-logical. To call something 'psychosomatic' when 'somatic' means bodily, and 'psyche' means psychological, may seem to be contradictory. However, the words used to describe the mind have a use because they determine the physical location of the causes of illness (the brain and the nervous system). This aids understanding, for to call all disease somatic would be to lose this major practical classification.

Free will and Causation: Is it true to say that, with psychosomatic disorders, the mind exercises 'free will' in 'choosing' illness? I think not. Although the cause of psychosomatic illness is psychological, the cause of the psychosomatic illness is itself the behaviour of the neurones of the brain and therefore psychosomosis is ultimately regulated by the laws of chemistry and physics, just like other biological and conscious systems. As a result, we find that the existence of psychosomosis (whether in curing or in causing illness) merely proves that the mind, the brain and the body all have a single, physical nature, and not two separate natures (body and soul).

9. The Limits of Psychosomosis

Book CoverOther investigators argue that while mental states might exert some influence on the initiation of disease, they are likely to be powerless to affect advanced organic pathology.

"How We Know What Isn't So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life" by Thomas Gilovich (1991)30

Despite the studies above that detail the pervasive and powerful effects that psychology can have on disease, we must heed certain common-sense warnings. Studies that have shown psychosomatic illness to be hindered by the mind have only been consistent in a few types of disease, and the wise philosopher Thomas Gilovich warns us that the most extreme predictions of any theory have tended to be untrue30. For example in a compendium of skeptical essays, Paul R. Grob lectures that many illnesses that are said to be due to stress actually have other causes - although in the case of asthma he admits that stressful events cause attacks31. Some powerful pain relief drugs such as morphine have effects which far outstrip the possibilities of the placebo effect5. So although there are sometimes quite extreme bodily effects resulting from the mind's neurology, the reality is often more subdued than the extremes of theoretical possibility. Willpower cannot perform magic, and can only affect disease where such disease is affected by our nervous system's control of our body.

10. Conclusion: Reverse Psychosomosis - Bodily Health Through Mental Effort

There seems to be no limits to the seriousness of possible physical problems resulting from subconscious mental dysphoria; but there are many benefits also from certain mental exercises and from holding a positive mental attitude. Good reactions to stress are an indicator of long-term health, both physical and mental. Willpower and determination sit alongside hopeful thinking as elements of a reverse psychosomosis mechanism; helping protect the body against disease. Meditation, self-reflection and having a 'fighting spirit' against health problems all contribute to actual physical health.

It is a well known fact that many people die simply because they give up and just don't care anymore. This is understandable if the person is very ill, with no apparent chance for recovery. But this often is not the case. Man has become lazy. He has learned to take the easy way out.

"The Satanic Bible"
Anton LaVey (1969)32

Summarizing the techniques and conclusions drawn on this page, it follows that various good practices can increase the health of individuals and of entire nations.

Read / Write LJ Comments

By Vexen Crabtree 2008 Sep 04
(Last Modified: 2013 Jul 22)
Originally published 2006 Oct 31
Parent page: Human Health and Self Development

Social Media

References: (What's this?)

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The Guardian. Respectable and generally well researched UK broadsheet newspaper.

New Scientist. UK based weekly science news paper (not subject to scientific peer-review though). Published by Reed Business Information Ltd, London, UK.

Skeptical Inquirer. Pro-science magazine published bimonthly by the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, New York, USA.

The Economist. Published by The Economist Group, Ltd. A weekly newspaper in magazine format, famed for its accuracy, wide scope and intelligent content. See for some commentary on this source.

Carroll, Robert. Taught philosophy at Sacramento City College from 1977 until retirement in 2007. Created The Skeptic's Dictionary in 1994.
(2011) Unnatural Acts: Critical Thinking, Skepticism, and Science Exposed!. Kindle edition. Published by the James Randi Educational Foundation.

Davison & Neale
(1997) Abnormal Psychology. Hardback 7th edition. Published by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Amazon link points to a newer edition than the one I've used here.

Feldman & Marks
(2005, Eds.) Panic Nation: Unpicking the Myths We're Told About Food and Health. Edited by Stanley Feldman and Vincent Marks. Published by John Blake Publishing Ltd, London, UK.

Gardner, Martin. Died 2010 May 22 aged 95.
(1957) Fads & Fallacies in the Name of Science. Published by Dover Publications, Inc., New York, USA. Originally published by G. P. Putnam's Sons in 1952 as "In the Name of Science".

Gilovich, Thomas
(1991) How We Know What Isn't So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life. 1993 paperback edition published by The Free Press, NY, USA.

Gooch, Stan
(2007) The Origins of Psychic Phenomena: Poltergeists, Incubi, Succubi, and the Unconscious Mind. My references are to the original edition published as "Creatures from Inner Space" (1984, hardback) by Rider & Company, London, UK. The edition linked to here is published by Inner Traditions 2007; information retrieved from Amazon UK on 2007 Dec 14. [Book Review]

Gregory, Richard L.
(1987) The Oxford Companion to the Mind. Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK. Quotes from 1987 reprint.

Gross, Richard
(1996) Psychology: The Science of Mind and Behaviour. 3rd edition. Published by Hodder & Stoughton, London UK.

LaVey, Anton. (1930-1997) Founder of the Church of Satan.
(1969) The Satanic Bible. Published by Avon Books Inc, New York, USA. Anton LaVey founded the Church of Satan in 1966.

Lehrer, Jonah
(2009) The Decisive Moment: How the Brain Makes Up Its Mind. Hardback. Published by Canongate Books, Edinburgh.

McConnel, James V.
(1986) Understanding Human Behavior. Hardback 5th edition. Originally published 1974. CBS College Publishing, Holt Rinehart and Winston, New York, USA.

Myers, David
(1999) Social Psychology. 6th 'international' edition. First edition 1983. Published by McGraw Hill.

Toates, Romero & Datta
(2004) From Cells to Consciousness. A neurology textbook by Frederick Toates, Ignacio Romero and Saroj Datta. Published by The Open University, Milton Keynes, UK.

Weatherley, Lionel A.
(1891) The Supernatural?. Hardback. Published by J. W. Arrowsmith, Bristol. This is a hard to find book. Bath Library has a copy, accessed 2012 Dec 14.


  1. Gregory, R. (1987). Entry on Psychosomatic Disease: A Medical View. Another entry exists for psychosomosis.^^
  2. Gooch (2007) p165.^
  3. Lehrer (2009) p143. Added to this page on 2010 Mar 03.^
  4. The Economist (2012 Apr 14) article "Medicine and its Rivals".^
  5. Toates (2004) in Toates, Romero & Datta (2004) p6-7, 38-39. Added to this page on 2010 Mar 03.^^
  6. Gardner (1957) p187.^
  7. Carroll (2011) p154, 251. Added to this page on 2015 May 03.^
  8. Prof Ellen J. Langer's book "Counterclockwise: Mindful Health and Power of Possibility" (2009) published by Random House, was reviewed in Scientific American Mind (2009 Sep/Oct). Added to this page on 2009 Dec 09.^
  9. Dr Steven Novella "The Poor, Misunderstood Placebo" in Skeptical Inquirer (2010 Nov/Dec) p33-34. Novella is assistant professor of neurology at Yale School of Medicine and President of the New England Skeptical Society.^
  10. New Scientist (2009 May 16) p30-32. Added to this page on 2009 Jun 28.^^
  11. Davison & Neale (1997) p155.^
  12. Davison & Neale (1997) p198.^
  13. Weatherley (1891) p256. Added to this page on 2013 Jul 22.^
  14. The Economist (2006 May 20).^
  15. Skeptical Inquirer (2009 Sep/Oct) p36-37.^
  16. The Economist (2008 Sep 27) article "Electrosensitivity: Mind your phone" p108. An excerpt follows: "[During] sham-phone exposure, only the electrosensitives described any sensations - which ranged from prickling to pain. Moreover, they showed neural activity to match. Some of the same bits of their brains lit up as when they were exposed to high temperatures. This suggests that electrosensitivity, rather than being a response to electromagnetic stimulus, as akin to well-known psychosomatic disorders such as some sorts of tinnitus and chronic pain. A psychosomatic disorder is one in which the symptoms are real, but are induced by cognitive functions rather than by direct external stimuli".^
  17. Davison & Neale (1997) p202.^^
  18. Gross (1996) p145.^^
  19. Scientific American Mind (2009 Sep/Oct) article "Inflammation Brings on the Blues" p16. Added to this page on 2009 Dec 09.^
  20. Myers (1999) p583.^^
  21. Schieman et al. (2006). Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion (2006) 45(4):529-549, Blackwell Publishers. Scott Schieman is professor of sociology at the University of Toronto, USA.^
  22. Gross (1996) p89-90.^
  23. The Guardian (2005 May 02) article "Meditation 'leads to longer life'".^
  24. Skeptical Inquirer Skeptical Inquirer (2008 Nov/Dec Vol. 32 Issue 6) "Secrets of Spectacularly Skewered Skin". Added to this page on 2012 Aug 06.^
  25. Gross (1996) p88.^
  26. A. A. Mason, 'A Case of Congenital Ichthyosiform Erythrodermia Treated by Hypnosis', British Medical Journal, vol. 2, 1952. Via Gooch (1984) p98-99..^
  27. Gooch, (1984) p98-99.^
  28. R. L. Moody, 'Bodily Changes During Abreaction', Lancet, vol. 251, no. 2, 1946; and vol. 254, no. 2 1948. Via Gooch (1984) p109.^
  29. Gooch (2007) p110.^
  30. Gilovich (1991) p140.^
  31. Paul R. Grob "Stress and Illness - A Modern Disease?" in "How We Know What Isn't So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life" by Thomas Gilovich (1991).^
  32. LaVey (1969) Book of Lucifer 10, para3.^
  33. Davison & Neale (1997) p200.^
  34. McConnel (1986) p535-6.^
  35. The Economist (2006 May 20) .^
  36. Scientific American Mind (2009 Sep/Oct) article "Inflammation Brings on the Blues" p16. Added to this page on 2009 Dec 09.

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