February 7, 1996

Nocebos Contribute to Host of Ills

JAMA. 1996;275(5):345-347. doi:10.1001/jama.1996.03530290015007

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HERBERT BENSON, MD, still recalls the time a patient nearly made him sick.

The incident happened during his internship, as Benson was about to examine an Asian man. When the patient came into the examining room, Benson says he "absolutely panicked." In a cold sweat, his heart racing, the physician performed the exam. But afterward, he told the patient of his unusual reaction.

The patient's response? "Ha, ha, ha, Yank. Now you die!" he exclaimed, recreating his Tokyo Joe film role from World War II—era movies. Just the sight of the character actor evoked in Benson a response similar to how he had felt while watching those films.

"Wired in me was this fear. When I saw him, although I couldn't identify the fear, it expressed itself," explains Benson, now president of the Mind & Body Medical Institute at Harvard Medical School, Boston, Mass.

Benson's anecdote illustrates a little-recognized aspect