The Nocebo Show

Cold season has installed into the norther hemisphere. I know because, well, it’s kind of hard to miss: all that rain and cold and mist in the morning gives me the chills and drains all the energy out. I had to up my daily coffee ration from two to three just to keep me going. But I already new the cold season was coming quite a while before the actual cold had installed, because even if I missed the obvious ending of August, TV was there to remind me that very soon I am going to be sick and I will need various kinds of cold medicine.

Regardless what your preferences is entertainment, sports, weather, news, science shows every 15 to 20 minutes there’s going to be an advertisement break where you are bombarded with messages like: you have a cold, you have fever, you have a runny nose, your throat hurts, your kids are sick, messages that come through ever more vivid and convincing channels (sounds, images, circumstances, fears that come true, etc.) all to make sure that you are going to recall that exact brand of cold medicine and buy it when the time comes.

I really wonder how much this influences our state of spirit, generally speaking. Personally I find this extremely depressing. I don’t watch a lot of TV, but whenever I do, I am amazed by the frequency of these advertisements and I am drawn to think that this propaganda contributes substantially to the susceptibility of the average person to catch a cold during this season.

The Nocebo Effect, the dark mirror image of the Placebo Effect is a well documented and accepted phenomenon within medical circles. The true mechanism behind the process is not entirely understood but it has to do with the brain/mind, its power over the body and the power of suggestion the trigger has over the brain/mind. Placebos are capable to cure the body simply by convincing the brain that the body received medicine and hence “getting better” is imminent. On the same account, red colored pills are more efficient painkillers than white ones (given same amount of active ingredient) and one has a better chance of finishing a marathon if one is convinced that it is within ones capability.

Nocebos (Latin for “I will harm”) uses the same channels as the placebo. It convinces the mind that whatever comes is bad and by doing so it is capable of inducing a negative effect on the body: sometimes very specific effects like a rash, lightheadedness, nausea (mimicking the expected effect of the phony product consumed). Of course, doing studies in this field it is even less ethically acceptable than doing experiments with the placebo effect, therefore the vast majority of evidence are collateral from actual medical trials and come sporadically. It is not unconceivable however, that the same way as a placebo is capable to cure a disease, by boosting immune response, nocebos are capable of lowering a person’s immune system and make him more susceptible to colds or other kinds of viruses and infections. It is a common misconception that these have to come in the form of pills or liquids. Anything that is powerful enough to convince the brain that an effect is expectable, will do and what can be more convincing than a message professionally designed to do exactly that: convince the brain that it needs something and trigger the urge to buy.

Add this to the fact that the average western person watches 2.8 hours of TV every day, which means he gets the message 10 – 15 times on average, every day. I wonder how much this influences people’s susceptibility in general to these seasonal diseases. I wonder if there would be just as many cases of flu and colds during a season where people see the opposite on TV, messages like: “you are healthy because you exercise”, “your body can fight it”, “you have a stuffy nose? Use drops only at night, cause during the day YOU can handle it”.

Given that we have evidence that the power of suggestion is real, shouldn’t we impose some ethical limits on the messages that fly out to people? Is it really OK, to tell hundreds of millions of people that they are about to get sick, potentially causing them to do so? I totally understand that advertisement is an essential tool in our economy, but I believe that the message could and should be tweaked differently. We are smart creatures, we should pay more attention to each other.

Thanks for reading. Please let me know what you think.

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