How The „Nocebo Effect“ Can Trick Us Into Actually Dying


Image: Instagram/TomVarco
The „nocebo effect“ is like the placebo effect, except in reverse. Whereas placebos trick people into feeling better, „nocebos“ are things that make people feel worse, even though they don’t really exist. They can even kill people! Here’s how we can trick ourselves into dying, and how doctors may have found a cure.


By Esther Inglis-Arkell|io9

Let’s begin with a story. A young man who had been in treatment for depression for some time hit a low point after his girlfriend left him. He took an entire bottle of his medication. As soon as he finished the bottle, he realized he’d made a mistake. At the hospital, grievously ill, he lingered near death. He couldn’t breathe. His blood pressure was dangerously low. After making inquiries, the doctors found out that he had been in a study for a new antidepressant. That might explain why none of the tests they ran on him was able to indicate what drug was poisoning him. They contacted the doctors coordinating the study.

The man had been given placebos. The placebos had worked, improving his mood and making him sure that he’d been given the active medication. When he overdosed on the sugar pills, the placebo effect he’d been experiencing transitioned into the „nocebo effect.“ Convinced he was dying, he actually began to die. Once he was told he was in no danger, he recovered.

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