The Danger of Voodoo Science: When Mind Attacks Body

In 1977, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention started receiving reports that otherwise healthy Southeast Asian men were dying mysteriously in their sleep, some with terrified expressions on their faces. Researchers, at a loss, called it SUNDS—Sudden Unexpected Nocturnal Death Syndrome. In particular, SUNDS disproportionately affected Hmong refugees from Laos. At the peak of the “epidemic” in 1981, Hmong men were dying from SUNDS at the same rate as American men in the same age group were dying from the five leading causes of natural death—combined.

“People didn’t know at all what was going on,” says University of California-San Francisco professor Shelley Adler, who was a graduate student studying medical anthropology at the time. But after interviewing 118 Hmong men and women about their experiences, her suspicions were confirmed. Many attributed the deaths to fatal attacks from dab tsog, an evil nighttime spirit in the traditional Hmong religion that crushes men at night. Their descriptions of dab tsog were similar to sleep paralysis, a disorder in which a person’s mind awakens while their body is still asleep or paralyzed; they often feel like they are being crushed and experience hallucinations.

But there were still unanswered questions. “Sleep paralysis alone is not fatal,” Adler says. “Sleep paralysis alone does not kill anyone. Why was it fatal for the Hmong?”

SCIENTISTS ARE JUST BEGINNING to understand how cultural beliefs can lead to psychological stress, illness, and even death. American physiologist Walter Cannon was one of the first people to write about the potentially fatal consequences of these intense beliefs. In 1942, reports were streaming in from around the world about “voodoo” death: South American Tupinamba men, condemned by medicine men, died of fright. Hausa people in Niger withered away after being told they were bewitched. Aboriginal tribesmen in Australia, upon seeing an enemy pointing a hexed bone at them, went into convulsions and passed away. “Voodoo” death, according to Cannon, was real: “It is a fatal power of the imagination working through unmitigated terror.”

PSYCHOLOGICAL STRESS—ESPECIALLY, IN THESE CASES, DUE TO CULTURAL BELIEFS—CAN BE SIGNIFICANT ENOUGH TO CAUSE MAJOR HEALTH ISSUES.

Researchers today continue to find evidence of it. “I’d been thinking for a long, long time, how I would test this idea that fear makes a difference,” says David Phillips, a sociology professor at the University of California-San Diego. He learned from a student that many Chinese and Japanese people are superstitious about numbers, particularly the number four, which is considered unlucky because it sounds like the word for “death.” Phillips decided to crunch cardiac mortality figures for all Chinese and Japanese Americans who died from 1973 to 1998 on the fourth of each month. He found that cardiac deaths were seven percent higher than expected for Chinese and Japanese Americans on the fourth day of each month when compared to white Americans. That number rose to 13 percent for chronic heart disease deaths and was at its strongest, at 27 percent, in California, which accounts for almost half of the Chinese and Japanese deaths in the U.S.

After examining other plausible reasons for this phenomenon, Phillips’ paper concludes that “the only explanation consistent with the findings is that psychological stress linked to the number four elicits additional deaths among Chinese and Japanese patients.”=================

EVENTUALLY, SCIENTISTS BEGAN PIECING together parts of the SUNDS puzzle. In 1992, researchers identified a genetic mutation called the Brugada syndrome, which causes abnormal electrical impulses in the heart and could be linked to SUNDS and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. An extensive survey and sleep study of Hmong in Wisconsin confirmed that they were six to seven times more likely to have sleep apnea, and 10 times more likely to report frequent sleep paralysis, than non-Hmong.

But the genetics didn’t paint a complete picture. SUNDS deaths peaked in 1981, the same year that the number of Southeast Asian refugees migrating to the U.S. was at its highest. Then the deaths gradually stopped. Plus, the Hmong that Adler interviewed had never heard of anyone dying from a dab tsog encounter in Laos.

“If it is a genetic disorder, why aren’t people still dying from it?” Adler asks. “Why was there that peak in deaths? Why did the death happen with greater frequency when folks were [in the U.S.] for little over a year?”

The answer, Adler believes, could lie in the very phenomenon that Phillips had observed in Chinese and Japanese deaths: Psychological stress—especially, in these cases, due to cultural beliefs—can be significant enough to cause major health issues.

Adler’s interviews with Hmong refugees revealed that many of them had undergone traumatic experiences in the Vietnam War and struggled to transition to life in the U.S. Two-thirds of Hmong surveyed in Wisconsin reported negative experiences from the war, and one-third reported chronic pain; the prevalence of depression, anxiety, and PTSD is high among Hmong and other Southeast Asian refugees. Without the support of tight-knit communities and traditional religious structures and systems, many feared that the protective spirits of their ancestors were unable to defend them against dab tsog. Fear of of dab tsog caused so much stress among Hmong men that some would set their alarm clocks to ring every 20 to 30 minutes to avoid deep sleep.

“[The genetic component] seemed to be compounded by refugee stress, a period of shock,” Adler says. The overwhelming stress, in effect, could have “triggered” Brugada to unmask itself.=================

FOR A LONG TIME, research connecting psychological stress to adverse health consequences was anecdotal. “The more we studied it, the more we realized that power of suggestion is so important,” Adler says. Now, studies that use fMRI technology and measure hormones in our saliva and urine can illustrate how mental trauma, stress, or even confidence and self-perception trigger our hormonal, neurobiological, and vascular systems—activating our flight-or-flight response, binding pain receptors to opioids, releasing sugar and adrenaline, or compromising our immune system.

Most importantly, researchers are beginning to step away from the antiquated notion that “voodoo” death and mind-body connections are limited to exotic cultures or foreign people.

Ted Kaptchuk, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School and a former practitioner of acupuncture and herbal medicine, observed this firsthand: Often, his patients would feel better after getting a consultation, before he had administered any treatment. “At the time the only possible explanation I had was that I was somehow a psychic healer—a role I did not care to embrace,” Kaptchuk says. “Afterward I was recruited to evaluate alternative therapies at Harvard Medical School, and it was there that I first learned about placebo effects.”

Now the director of Harvard’s placebo studies program, Kaptchuk points out that Western medicine, like tribal dance or shaman healing, is also enrobed in rituals that cause placebo effects. In a 2010 study, he split patients suffering from irritable bowel syndrome into three groups. One was given no placebo or consultation. The second was given a placebo treatment (fake acupuncture) with a brief consultation with a physician. The last group was given the same placebo treatment and a highly empathetic and warm patient-physician interaction; physicians spent extensive time asking the patient about how their IBS might be related to relationships and lifestyle, communicated confidence about the treatment, and actively listened to the patient.

Six weeks later, all three groups had improved, each one better than the last. In particular, patients who got the augmented relationship with their physician reported significantly more symptom relief and quality of life improvement than either group. With over 60 percent reporting adequate relief, their results were on par with any pharmaceutical ever tested for IBS treatment.

Kaptchuk isn’t necessarily saying that alternative medicine works. Instead, his point is that when we put our trust in healers or healing systems—whether it’s a physician in a white coat or a Navajo medicine man—we trigger neurobiological pathways that affect our body’s sensations and symptoms. It may seem unlikely that psychological stress could cause something as drastic and definite as death, but scientific research is slowly unveiling the possibility. And for illnesses that are highly subjective in nature or affected by stress, like headache, pain, depression, fatigue, and nausea, placebos could be our best bet.

“It’s a question of emphasis,” Kaptchuk says. “Placebo studies suggest that, in health care, a more balanced approach to the physical and mental would be helpful in making patients feel better.”

Mercy Medical Center, located in the Central Valley of California, began making this shift in 2009, when they started inviting shamans to the hospital to help treat Hmong patients. The shamans place lucky objects at doorways, perform healing ceremonies, and provide comfort and reassurance. The doctors heal the body—the shamans take care of the soul.=================

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The self-styled anarchist known as the Unabomber, who has been killing and maiming people with package bombs for two decades, explained in a letter to The New York Times in April that: “We would not want anyone to think that we have any desire to hurt professors who study archaeology, history, literature, or harmless stuff like that. The people we are out to get are the scientists and engineers. . . .” “We advocate eliminating industrial society,” he wrote.

For all the suffering and fear he has spread, the Unabomber poses no more threat to “industrial society” than random bolts of lightning. There is simply no way back.

Yet, growing numbers of people distrust the technology on which they depend, and reject the Western scientific tradition that created it. It is a romantic rebellion, led not by the religious fundamentalists who are the traditional foes of science, but by serious academics and writers who regard themselves as intellectuals.

They range from the environmental extremist Jeremy Rifkin, who sees disaster in every new technology, to a University of Delaware philosophy professor, Sandra Harding, who argues that the laws of physics were constructed to maintain white male dominance.

An Afrocentric writer, Hunter Adams, contends that the African people were “the wellspring of creativity and knowledge on which the foundation of all science, technology and engineering rest.”

Researchers in the Office of Alternative Medicine at the National Institutes of Health espouse psychic healing and homeopathic medicine.

What they all share is a profound hostility to modern science. Evidence of it can even be found at the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of American History, where a permanent exhibit, “Science in American Life,” turned out to be a catalogue of environmental horrors, weapons of mass destruction and social injustice. Among all the displays of pesticide residue, air pollution, acid rain, ozone holes, radioactive waste, food additives and nuclear bombs, there was no mention that life expectancy in the United States has more than doubled in the last century, the period covered by the exhibit.

It is science that made that possible. Because of criticism, the Smithsonian has agreed to review the exhibit. What century, you are left to wonder, would the Smithsonian historians prefer to have lived in?

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Or consider the proposed new national standards for teaching American history. Dozens of historians labored for three years to produce this new curriculum for grades 5-12, but the 250-page document, released last fall, made no mention of science.

Electricity, radio, jet travel, weather satellites, nuclear weapons, antibiotics, the Apollo moon landing, the eradication of smallpox, genetic engineering and computers might as well have dropped from the sky.

Well, to be fair, a search of the document did turn up “science” one time — in a list of professions from which women have been systematically excluded.

A search for “scientific” turns up this gem in the section on postwar history: “The swordplay of the Soviet Union and the United States rightfully claims attention because it led to the Korean and Vietnam wars, as well as the Berlin airlift, the Cuban missile crisis, American interventions in many parts of the world, a huge investment in scientific research, and environmental damage that will take generations to rectify.”

So there you have it. Scientific research, along with two wars and destruction of the environment, is just another expensive consequence of swordplay. But the neglect of science in the the history standards seems benign compared with the Afrocentric curriculum finding its way into urban schools across the nation.

Based on an essay by Adams, commissioned by the Portland, Ore., public schools, this curriculum attributes everything from the discovery of electricity to the theory of evolution to the ancient Africans. The ancient Egyptians were “masters of magic, psychokinesis, remote viewing and other underdeveloped human capabilities,” writes Adams, who has worked as an industrial hygiene technician and who has no record of scientific publication.

In an attempt to accommodate diversity, many educators and social critics now treat all ideas as equally deserving of respect, except those that sprang from Western civilization. With no understanding at all of science or its methods, they have persuaded themselves that modern science is a product of the power structure it serves.

In some other culture, these “post-modernists” argue, the laws of Nature would come out differently. Dr. Harding of the University of Delaware has written that “value-free research is a delusion” and compared traditional methods of science to “marital rape, the husband as scientist forcing nature to his wishes.”=================

One narrative account of the world is as good as another. “The task of the historian is not to discover ultimate truth, but rather to construct a convincing explanation of selected aspects of human behavior,” writes John Lankford, a historian at Kansas State University.

There is also a resurgence of belief in magic and psychic phenomena, which has spread to all levels of society, even to the National Institutes of Health. The recent N.I.H. report on alternative medicine discusses various magical cures, from “Lakota medicine wheels” to “mental healing at a distance,” as though they deserve serious attention.

The report includes a totally uncritical discussion of something called “biofield therapeutics.” Biofield therapists, it seems, manipulate the patients “aura,” scooping off any negative energy. A patient in a Midwestern hospital reportedly complained after a careless biofield practitioner, working on someone in the next bed, scooped some negative energy onto him.

The N.I.H. report is surely the most credulous document ever offered in the name of medical science. Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, who three years ago sponsored legislation creating an Office of Alternative Medicine at N.I.H., was the host at a news conference where the report was released last spring.

This was not the first time Congress had inserted itself into medical controversy. Remember laetrile, the toxic concoction of apricot pits that promised to cure cancer? The Food and Drug Administration banned laetrile, but in 1980 desperate cancer patients appealed to Congress, which directed the agency to conduct clinical trials. When the trials showed laetrile to be worthless, there was an effort in Congress to force the F.D.A. to release the drug anyway.

But the agency stood its ground, seeing its responsibility as the protection of an unsophisticated public from medical quackery. Now, even more outlandish ideas are financed by a branch of the National Institutes of Health. It is not the financing that is so objectionable as the credibility that comes with it.

The response of scientists has been muted. Why have the scientists themselves, who are forever bemoaning the general scientific illiteracy, been so timid about publicly condemning this nincompoopery? Perhaps they fear being cast as intolerant, even of foolishness.

The public needs to hear that we live in a universe governed by natural laws that cannot be circumvented but can be understood and used to benefit humanity. Progress is never smooth. Each new application begets new problems.

But it is science that uncovers the problems and it is to science that we turn to solve them. This is not because scientists have any claim to greater intellect or virtue, but because science is the only means we have to sort out the truth from ideology or fraud or mere foolishness.

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10 Things You Didn’t Know About Voodoo

Thanks to popular portrayal by Hollywood, voodoo is perhaps one of the world’s most misunderstood religions. Most depictions of voodoo show a dark, mysterious religion that revolves around animal sacrifices, casting harmful spells, and using dolls to hurt others. That’s about as far from the truth as you can get, and the real stories behind voodoo are proof that you can’t believe everything you see on television.

Three Different Types

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There are three main types of voodoo, each drawing their sphere of influence from a different place. West African voodoo is still practiced by around 30 million people, particularly in nations like Ghana and Benin. Rituals and beliefs are extensive, and largely untouched by the outside influences that have shaped other types of voodoo.

Louisiana voodoo is a unique brand of voodoo practiced, as its name suggests, mainly in Louisiana and the southeastern United States. Though brought over from West African voodoo, this form as been heavily influenced by the practices of Spanish and French settlers, as well as the Creole population. Haitian voodoo, practiced in Haiti, has been largely shaped by its French influence as well as Christianity.

Strong Parallels To Christianity

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At first glance, it seems that a religion that revolves around spiritual possession, potions, and the worship of ancestors would have little to do with Christianity. However, there are strong parallels; in the case of Louisiana and Haitian voodoo, many Christian traditions, beliefs, and figures have been incorporated into this flexible religion. The spirits are central to the practice of voodoo, and many of the central figures have Christian counterparts.

Aida Wedo is a virginal figure of Mary, while Legba, the guardian gatekeeper, is a mirror image of St. Peter. In voodoo, important spirits that believers connect with are called the loa (or lwa); in some locations, these loa and their families can be called by the names of the Catholic saints they represent. In West African voodoo, there is a very Christian belief that there is one supreme god ruling all.=================

Accepted By The Catholic Church

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In fact, the parallels between voodoo and Christianity are so strong that there is no animosity between the two parties, and in many areas they peacefully coexist. While at one time practitioners who had also been baptized could expect repercussions from the church for partaking in voodoo ceremonies, now priests from both sides are working hand-in-hand to help bring peace and prosperity to Africa, the birthplace of voodoo.

In fact, Pope John Paul II has spoken at length about the esteem with which he holds practitioners of voodoo, acknowledging the “fundamental goodness” inherent in their practices, teachings, and beliefs. He even attended a voodoo ceremony in 1993, helping to cement the amiable coexistence of these two seemingly opposite religions.

Voodoo Dolls

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Voodoo dolls are more complicated than they’re usually portrayed. A voodoo doll doesn’t actually symbolize a person in the respect that what happens to it, happens to the person. Instead, a doll is only associated with the person in question—usually by attaching a picture of the person, or something that was in intimate contact with them, such as a lock of hair (attaching this personification is actually the purpose of the voodoo straight pin usually seen in a voodoo doll, which is commonly believed to be an instrument of pain).

Other things are usually added to the doll, and these vary based on the intended purpose. Garlic, flower petals, perfumes, or even money can be added—not as a direct message to the person, but as an appeal to the spirits to open themselves to the doll and the wishes of those involved. The voodoo doll can be used for a huge variety of purposes, and most are benevolent. The voodoo doll in itself is not an evil or dark thing, but, like many religious and secular symbols, it can be made dark by the person who wields it.=================

Marie Laveau

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Marie Laveau is one of the names most commonly associated with voodoo, and consequently she has become something of a surreal, larger-than-life figure. Even what’s known for sure seems debatable. She was said to be born the illegitimate daughter of a Creole plantation owner and his half black, half Native American mistress. Her first marriage ended when her husband disappeared under mysterious circumstances; her second, common-law marriage, however, lasted years and gave her 15 children. One of these children, Marie Laveau II, followed in her mother’s footsteps as a voodoo priestess and is thought to be the source of rumors that the elder Laveau lived decades longer than any mortal person should.

In addition to counseling those in need and selling gris-gris to everyone in all walks of life, she was also a hairdresser. This allowed her intimate access to some of the most powerful people in New Orleans, who she would counsel while at the same time use to gather secrets and inside information on others in the city, helping to cement her position of relative power. Just how much power Lavaeu had has long been debated, but what can’t be debated is that her public performances and rituals elevated voodoo into the public eye.

Also beyond debate is her selfless concern for those she shared her city with; her work giving assistance to the homeless, the hungry, and the sick is well documented. Even today, visitors to New Orleans leave offerings at the place where she is supposedly buried and ask for her assistance.

Practitioners Are Servants Of The Spirits

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Someone who practices voodoo is often accused—especially by Hollywood—of being a powerful person who orders the spirits to do their bidding. That’s not the case at all; in fact, the opposite is true. Voodoo practitioners see themselves as servants of the spirits. They don’t actually tell the spirits to do anything; they provide offerings and honor, and then ask.

Voodoo priests and priestesses undergo a long period of training before performing any ritual that opens themselves up to spiritual possession. During these rituals, one of the two spirits that inhabit the body—the ti bon ange—leaves the body so the spirit of a loa can possess it. The ti bon ange is the portion of the spirit that contains the individual, and must be protected when the individual is hosting a loa. The other part, the gros bon ange, is a spirit that is shared among all the living.=================

Healing

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Again harkening back to the voodoo doll and the stereotypes around it, many think of voodoo as a dark religion led by people wielding power to damage the spirit and body. On the contrary, much of voodoo centers around healing and herbalism. One of the most important reasons for summoning a spirit in a voodoo ritual is to ask for aid in healing the sick and the injured.

Healing is a spiritual idea as well as a physical one, and practitioners can focus on healing a broken heart or changing a person’s luck for the better, as well as healing the body. Voodoo priests and priestesses do acknowledge that they are not all-powerful when it comes to diagnosing and healing, however, and will recommend modern medicine and treatment if they deem the situation beyond their control.

There Is No Black Or White

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Many cultures recognize white magic as the good, healing sort of magic, while black magic is the darker sort. In voodoo, there is no distinction between white and black. Instead, when an evil spirit is conjured or bribed by an evil person to do something bad, it’s called red magic. The color of the spirit is red, and when a practitioner allows an evil loa to take possession of them, their eyes turn red, showing that evil is present.

Sometimes a benevolent spirit can turn evil by the wishes that are imposed on it. This is in complete contradiction to the actual teachings of voodoo, which center around the good and the charitable. Part of the role of a female practitioner (a Queen) and a male practitioner (a Doctor) is to stop red magic before it happens.=================

The Voodoo Pantheon

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In another striking similarity to Christianity, the voodoo pantheon has three main tiers. At the top is a single God, who is a present yet distant figure. The loa make up another tier—spirits that interact with mortals on a regular basis. The individual’s deceased relatives play an important role in their spiritual life as well, as honoring one’s ancestors is an important part of voodoo. The third tier is the mortals themselves.

One of the fundamental concepts of voodoo is the relationship between these tiers; Papa Legba is one of the most important of the loa, as he is the gatekeeper between the mortal realm and the divine. All mortal contact with the loa goes through Legba, and it is said that he opens the gates between worlds. A reflection of St. Peter, he is also the guardian of the home, the crossroads, and travel.

Snakes

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The images of you commonly see of voodoo practitioners dancing with snakes aren’t done for the shock value. The snake is hugely important in the mythos of voodoo. Damballa, or Danballa, is the serpent god and the oldest of the voodoo pantheon. He is said to have been the one to create the world. Damballa created the water from his shed skin and the stars in the sky from his coils. He is married to Ayida Wedo, the rainbow, in an eternal love that represents the balance between the male and the female.

He represents wisdom and the mind, and is associated with symbols like the color white, eggs, bones, and ivory. The protector of the helpless and young children as well as the handicapped and the deformed, he is said to transport the souls of the dead to the afterlife. Priests and priestesses can be possessed by the spirit of Damballa, but they do not speak; instead, they hiss.

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