Is your face getting hot right now? Do you feel an itch or a burn around your eyes, your mouth, perhaps a tightening in your throat? Are you finding it difficult to breathe? Focus? Swallow?
Here, let me adjust the frequency. It is, after all, a new and experimental WiFi system we're testing in your home, very powerful, located in that box near your very delicate skull.
How about now? Headache? Feeling dizzy? Heart racing? Difficult to stand or walk? Yes, the blinking light on the box means it's working. Let's turn the signal up, but place it slightly further away. Better? Worse?
Here is perhaps the far more important question: How much of what you're feeling is really the result of the WiFi, and how much comes from your anticipation of the danger, your expectation that the device must be causing you harm, your absolute conviction that, because I'm telling you it's so powerful and you've heard/read/been told of the mysterious dangers of EMFs and shadowy gizmo malevolence, it must be causing you ill?
In other words, how much is self-generated complaint and wishful victimization -- resulting in a very real, nasty physical reaction -- and how much is the actual consequence of the technology? Do you know? Can you separate?
Hint: Probably not. Not by a long shot.
It is nothing new, of course. Here is this chemical syrup that causes immediate nausea after swallowing. Here is this drug that has a nasty side effect of sexual dysfunction and dizziness. Here is the mysterious ingredient you have been told causes spontaneous encephalitis in lab rats. Here is a photograph of this bearded, dark-featured person from a foreign country who is standing near a strange flag.
Do you feel anything? Are you convinced? Are you feeling anger, confusion, sickness, dysfunction? Are you fearing, just a little, for your life?
OK, truth: This has all been a lie. An experiment. There is no WiFi signal in that box, there is no chemical in that syrup, there is no dangerous drug in that pill. That scary looking person is just a Photoshop hack, a random amalgam of 10 different faces from people sitting in that café across the street.
How do you feel now? Foolish? Justified? Are you still in pain? Of course you are. Because you sort of feel like you should be. Because you are convinced.
I am not making this up. Behold, yet another fascinating study, published in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research, where researchers tested nearly exactly what I describe above: A powerful new WiFi antenna, placed on subjects' heads to see how well it worked and what, if any, ill effects might result.
Can you guess? How many subjects felt hot, dizzy, sickened, even so incapacitated by this strong and experimental WiFi they couldn't even walk?
Answer: More than half. More than half.
The catch, of course, was there was no WiFi signal; the antenna was a fake. The participants were in no actual danger whatsoever, save for that generated by their own minds, their own expectations, their innate conditionings and fears.
Are you surprised by these results? Doubtful. The effects were startling, but not at all unusual. The power of the human animal to convince itself something must be very wrong, that we are weak, in danger, ever at the mercy of nefarious forces we do not understand, when we actually aren't, has been around since the dawn of, well, advertising.
This effect has a name: it's called the nocebo effect, the "evil twin" of the placebo effect, defined as "the power of our conviction to cause real physical illness." (Caveat: The full details of this particular study are not freely available to the public; I'm extrapolating from the study's abstract).
But of course, it takes little common sense and a glimpse at the totality of the human experiment (along with many other easily available studies) to see the overarching pattern, to understand the nocebo effect to be exceedingly true not merely for technology, but also for food, love, religion, health, fate and much of human life overall.
Conviction creates reality. Energy flows where attention goes. And some people just can't take it, not one little bit. So they move far, far away.
Do not misconstrue. There are plentiful demons about which we should be genuinely alarmed. There are indeed hundreds of verifiable compounds, chemicals, additives, synthetics, preservatives and technologies that have been widely proven to make humans very sick and very dead and we have little doubt about most of them. The severity might be debatable, but the danger is real.
Also? It does not take much beyond practical wisdom -- and spending even a little bit of time out in raw nature -- to understand that surrounding our lives with a million wires, EMFs, radio signals, flashing diodes, chemicals, gasses, pixels and waves can cause averse health effects. We are an infinitely adaptable species, but our technology is far outpacing us. We are inventing devices and mechanisms every day the physical, mental, spiritual effects of which we still have little capacity to understand, much less assimilate at any depth.
Yet and still. Is your cellphone really making your brain ache, or are you merely wishing yourself to be one of the special ones, hypersensitive and delicate and oh so abused by the world? Just how casually convinced are you of your everyday victim status? How much control over that status do believe you have? Your answer reveals, well, pretty much everything.
Let us expand a little. Let us widen the lens to suggest the nocebo effect is perhaps one of the most slippery and dangerous in all of humanity, our convictions about a thousand of life's supposed daggers, which might also only be feathers, which also might just be nothing at all but nagging phantasms, hollow bogeymen, strange and yappy illusions containing zero actual truth.
Your parents ruined you. Your abusive upbringing has scarred you for life. Your brutal divorce raped your soul. You cannot drive a car because the dials give you a headache. Gluten will make your colon explode. You cannot go anywhere near a department store. You are powerless to stop smoking. The Smart Meter on your home gave you heart palpitations. You are a compulsive shopper because OMG the Internet. You are hypersensitive to perfume/toothpaste/house paint/parrots/water. Men are pigs/women are manipulative so to hell with love forever. You are violently allergic to anything containing the color blue. The world, to some degree, is a wildly dangerous and deadly place in ways you cannot not even know. Believe it? Then it's true.
Unless it's not. Unless...
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Mark Morford is the author of The Daring Spectacle: Adventures in Deviant Journalism, a mega-collection of his finest columns for the San Francisco Chronicle and SFGate, and the creator of the new Mark Morford's Apothecary iOS app. He's also a well-known ERYT yoga instructor in San Francisco. Join him on Facebook, or email him. Not to mention...
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