I have written previously about the placebo effect, especially as it pertains to psychotropics in general, and soporifics (sleeping pills) in particular.

It’s well known that if a patient believes a drug will work, it is far more likely to produce subjective relief of symptoms. This is even more noticeable if a patient believes a drug will work AND is expensive (i.e., studies have shown that telling a patient that a medication/ placebo is generic, as opposed to the “costly name brand,” cuts down on placebo-efficacy).

Placebos are a testament to the power of the human brain to overcome some medical issues. There is, however, a downside. If we can convince ourselves that a non-treatment is making us better, can we also similarly convince ourselves that a non-malady is making us sick?

The answer is ‘yes,’ and it’s called the nocebo effect.

The New York Times wrote in August 2012 of a patient in an antidepressant drug trial who was, unbeknownst to her, in the placebo arm of the study. She overdosed on almost fifty of the sugar pills in a suicide attempt. Even though the tablets were chemically harmless, the participant’s blood pressure is said to have dropped precipitously following her ingestion (she lived).

It would seem that the nocebo effect is real and, potentially, problematic. To make matters worse, nocebos – even though they are solely comprised of thoughts resident in our own minds – can be contagious.

An example of a contagious nocebo can be found with ‘wind turbine syndrome.’ That’s not actually a medically-recognized condition. Many in the public, however, believe that the large electricity-producing windmills emit a barely audible buzzing noise, one which can result in nausea, dizziness, fatigue, tinnitus (ringing in the ears), and headaches.

Scientists have postulated, however, that when multiple individuals near wind turbines complain of these symptoms, it’s a result of a ‘communicated condition,’ one that, like a mass hysteria, spreads from mind to mind. People can literally worry themselves sick.

Simon Chapman, PhD, a professor of public health in Australia, is quoted in The Guardian as stating, “if wind farms were intrinsically unhealthy or dangerous in some way, we would expect to see complaints applying to all of them, but in fact there is a large number where there have been no complaints at all.”

Chapman cited a study out of New Zealand that exposed 60 healthy volunteers to both real and fake low-frequency noises, the former similar to what is produced by wind turbines and is sometimes known as infrasound. Half of the volunteers were shown television documentaries about the purported health problems associated with wind turbines, while the other half were not. Then both groups were played random noises: some infrasound, some not, and some a mixture. And those who had seen the videos about the allegedly adverse effects reported higher levels of subjective symptoms regardless of the type of noise to which they were exposed.

The wind turbines may be harmless, but breathless media coverage of them isn’t. In the words of one perplexed scientist, news stories about wind turbine syndrome aren’t reporting on the disease… they’re actually creating and spreading it!

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