Human beings have an amazing ability. We can create reality with our minds to such an extent that it produces noticeable changes in our bodies. Think about the anxiety you experience before you have to give a big speech or the happiness that comes from thinking about an upcoming vacation. As you run through different scenarios your body is responding to the inner world you’ve created and this leads to a question. Just how powerful is our mind?
A few years ago a woman we’ll call Sally went to the hospital for some routine tests. Sally had a heart valve condition called tricuspid stenosis. She also suffered from a milder form of congestive heart failure. Neither condition was considered life threatening.
The treating physician, Dr Bernard Lown, examined Sally and found nothing out of the ordinary. Later, another doctor accompanied by a host of residents doing routine medical rounds with final year students and interns, examined Sally. At the end of the visit this same doctor announced in front of everyone—including Sally—that the patient had TS.
While TS is an abbreviation for tricuspid stenosis, Sally believed that it stood for “terminal situation.” Soon after the second doctor’s declaration, Sally developed symptoms that mirrored a more advanced form of congestive heart failure. It was as if she accepted, believed, and surrendered to the idea without any analysis that she was dying. Dr Lown tried to explain the mix up but Sally wouldn’t listen. It was impossible for Sally to hear anything else. Within hours, she got progressively sicker and died later that same day.
The story of Sally actually happened and is a good example of the nocebo response. Nocebo (“I shall harm”) is the idea that negative thoughts, feelings and emotions can produce negative outcomes. Sally was a reasonably healthy person. There was no evidence of any fundamental change in her heart condition and yet she still died. What happened? Is it possible that Sally created the conditions she ultimately died from just by thought alone?
We can only accept, believe and surrender to thoughts and ideas that are equal to our present emotional state. When we do, we program our autonomic nervous system to make the exact pharmacy of drugs and chemicals to signal certain genes that either help us or harm us.
For example, when a person is given a diagnosis, if the announcement creates the emotion of fear, then that individual seems to only be suggestible to thoughts that are equal to that emotion. In the case of Sally that’s what happened. By the same means, the opposite is also true. We cannot accept, believe, or surrender to thoughts that are not equal to the emotions that we are embracing. That’s why Sally couldn’t hear the doctor when he tried to convince her she was fine.
Sally’s mind conditioned her body to believe she was dying. Her autonomic nervous system responded by creating the inner environment of a person with severe congestive heart failure. She made a thought seem so real that her body responded to her mind in the exact way that she expected.
This idea is called suggestibility. When we accept, believe, and surrender to any thought or stimulus without any analysis, we are therefore suggestible. The more suggestible we are, the less analytical we are. The more analytical we are, the less suggestible we are and it’s the analytical mind that separates the conscious mind from the subconscious mind. Think of the analytical mind as a gatekeeper that allows or stops certain thoughts to pass from the conscious mind to the subconscious mind.
The autonomic nervous system and the subconscious mind are linked together. Think of the autonomic nervous system as the body’s automatic system, which operates below our conscious mind/brain and “subconsciously” controls all of our bodily functions like body temperature, digestion, blood sugar levels, heart rate, etc. The moment Sally heard “TS,” the thought of dying from a terminal disease moved from her conscious mind right past her analytical mind and it programmed her subconscious mind which relayed that information to the autonomic nervous system. In this instance, Sally’s own emotions, feelings and thoughts worked against her.
The nocebo response doesn’t have to have such dire implications. In 1962, a group of researchers in Japan exposed 13 children to poison ivy. All of these children were severely allergic to the plant. The researchers rubbed a harmless leaf on the forearm of each child but claimed it was poison-ivy. They rubbed the other forearm with poison-ivy but said it was something else.
The results were astounding. All of the children developed a rash on the forearm that had been rubbed with the harmless leaf while 11 of the 13 developed no rash on the arm exposed to poison ivy. The children in this study changed the “predictable” outcome. Their new experience was no longer dictated by any past experience. The instant they accepted, believed and surrendered to the thought without any analysis that the leaf was benign or toxic, their new level of suggestibility changed how their body’s automatically reacted. We could say that the thought of the poison ivy being benign was a greater stimulus than the exposure to the potentially noxious leaf, and vice versa.
Fortunately, if we can use our minds to harm ourselves, we can also use them to heal ourselves. Instead of fear or anger, what would happen if we created an emotional state built of gratitude, inspiration or empowerment? If we could accept, believe and surrender to these new thoughts equal to those elevated emotional states, could we then begin to reprogram our autonomic nervous systems to start the process of reconditioning the body to a new mind?