Sleep paralysis is a frightening experience. You're asleep, but you sense you are awake. You seem to have a realistic perception of the immediate surroundings, but you can't move. It can be associated with a feeling of dread, chest pressure and shortness of breath.
The Dark Side of the Placebo Effect: When Intense Belief Kills is a fascinating piece about the work of Shelley Adler, a professor at the University of California, San Francisco. She explored why otherwise healthy young men (median age 33 years old) who were immigrants from southeast Asia were dying in their sleep without any obvious cause of death. Puzzled doctors called it Sudden Unexpected Nocturnal Death Syndrome (SUNDS).
Adler "comes to a stunning conclusion: In a sense, the Hmong were killed by their belief in the spirit world, even if the mechanism of their deaths was likely an obscure genetic cardiac arrhythmia that is prevalent in southeast Asia."
Adler describes the nexus of religious beliefs, chronic severe stress and health. She makes a case for the power of the nocebo -- "the flipside to the placebo effect" -- and argues that "biology can operate differently in different contexts."
The few available studies suggest the nocebo effect is real and powerful.
The article's concluding paragraph begins, "The truth is that we don't understand the relationship between belief and biology quite as well as we'd like to think." This is not a cop-out by journalist Alexis Madrigal. It's an invitation to open our minds and continue the search for understanding.