What if our obsession for information isn’t always good for us?
Everywhere we go, information is at our fingertips through the ubiquitous Internet. We seem to have an insatiable desire to access data at any instant in any location. Everywhere people are staring at their laptops, tablets, and smartphones, searching for important tidbits.
Interestingly, a 2007 story from BBC warned that prolonged exposure to cell phone transmissions and wifi radio waves could cause negative health effects.
Six years later the research doesn’t support this notion. What the research does show, however, is that exposure to this kind of “misinformation” perpetuated by the media causes people to experience the negative symptoms they’ve been told about.
Through experimentation, M Witthöft and GJ Rubin demonstrated that watching the BBC program caused people who believed they were exposed to wifi radio waves to experience predicted symptoms even though the exposure was fake. When people were shown this research and then asked about symptoms, 54% reported experiencing them.
This tendency towards experiencing what we believe isn’t limited to cell mast transmissions or wifi radio waves. It’s something that can apply to many beliefs about how exposures or treatments can affect us. And the easier it is to imagine or visualize the symptoms, and the more anxious people are about their health, the more likely they are to experience the same symptoms they heard about.
The technology explosion, though presumed to be a benefit to mankind, may not actually be helpful for the common citizen fearful about his or her health. On the Internet you can find every conceivable disease or body malfunction known to humanity. You can find all the symptoms that go along with these conditions, and possible remedies. You can find out what medication you can take or what surgeries can address the problem. And, you can find all the possible negative side effects that go along with these. This information only adds to the fear one may be harboring about their health. This issue can even be diagnosed. It’s conveniently called cyberchondria.
In 1961 Walter Kennedy coined this phenomenon the “nocebo response”. Cyberchondria is an example of the nocebo response, where a negative medical effect comes from one’s perception or thought about something. Another term for this is psychosomatic disorder.
In her article, “Health Anxiety” in the spring 2011 edition of Canadian Health, Wendy Glauser makes an important point: “At least 5% of the Canadian population is estimated to suffer from severe health anxiety, with a greater percentage of milder cases. Health anxiety can be triggered when “…Internet websites match perceived symptoms to scary disorders or when physical symptoms persist that doctors can’t explain.”
Have you ever been a little scared about symptoms you develop after reading or hearing about something in the media? Research shows that it isn’t chance when some symptoms are suggested to the mind and the condition manifests itself in the body.
Glauser, and those she interviews for her article, report on a physiological basis for understanding and addressing these conditions. They suggest altering the neurological functions of the brain through thought, or through relaxation techniques, counseling, and in some cases, medications.
One pioneer on the mental nature of health, Mary Baker Eddy, reflects on these issues in her book Science and Health. She says:
“The press unwittingly sends forth many sorrows and diseases among the human family. It does this by giving names to diseases and by printing long descriptions which mirror images of disease distinctly in thought. A new name for an ailment affects people like a Parisian name for a novel garment. Every one hastens to get it. A minutely described disease costs many a man his earthly days of comfort. What a price for human knowledge!” [pp. 196-7]
This tendency to experience what’s been described to us is something that some researchers and physicians are seriously considering. At what point do physicians not inform a patient of negative side effects that are only remotely possible?
For the rest of us, it may well serve our interests to exercise wisdom and discernment in exposing ourselves to the latest descriptions of disease or drug side effects. As a bumper sticker recently advised, “Don’t believe everything you think.” And I might add, “or read.”