Nocebo

Most people are familiar with the concept of a placebo. The word comes from Latin and means “I shall please.” We most frequently hear it used in medical terms. It can be a substance or a treatment that has no known therapeutic value. Common placebos include inert tablets (like sugar pills), and inert injections (like saline).

Sigmund Freud conjectured that since some placebos had a positive effect on what was considered a physical problem, the problem must really be in the mind. In his version of talk therapy providing positive information can improve the perception of well-being.

I have been fascinated with this concept ever since I heard about it in a high school course. But it was only recently that I heard the word nocebo. This is when negative data makes someone feel worse about their own health. Nocebo is Latin for “I shall harm.”

I heard nocebo used in the context of the negative effect that my wearing a fitness tracker on my wrist might have on me. I wear it to track my activities (steps, miles, exercise times). It also monitors my heart rate and my sleep. The device has a positive effect on me when it vibrates to tell me I have hit my steps goal for the day. But what is the effect on me when I spend all day working on the code for a website and discover at dinnertime that I have only taken 1200 steps all day and I have only been active for one of my waking hours? Nocebo effect.

“Placebo” was used in a medicinal context in the late 18th century to describe a “commonplace method or medicine.” In 1811, it was defined as “any medicine adapted more to please than to benefit the patient”.

In the 20th century, studies on the “placebo effect” showed that there could be a positive effect and that it could also have no effect. Inconclusive. However, placebo-controlled studies were used and are still used to evaluate new treatments. Clinical trials control for this effect by including a group of subjects that receives a “sham” treatment. Subjects in such trials don’t know if they received the treatment or a placebo.

I think it is interesting that if a person is given a placebo under one name, and they respond well, they will respond in the same way on a later occasion to that placebo under that name – but not if it is given with another name. Clinical trials are often double-blinded so the researchers also do not know which test subjects are receiving the active or placebo treatment.

I’m no medical authority so I must be careful what I suggest here, but I would think that when someone finds relief from a scientifically questionable treatment (copper bracelets for arthritis, some herbal products, etc.) that relief might be a placebo effect.

What was new to me (and perhaps to you) is the nocebo effect. It seems to apply to more than my fitness watch. What about social media “likes” and reposts and hit counters on your blog or website? They can all have a positive effect on you when you get them, but what about when you don’t get them? I think we might all need to be more conscious of any nocebo effects in out daily lives.

Detox

Image by marijana1 from Pixabay

I have been sick this past week. It is probably a spring cold not helped by some allergies. I did my COVID test and it was negative.

In that eerie way that your Internet browser seems to know what you’re thinking, I started seeing ads for detoxification products. I have seen them on the shelves of my local pharmacy too. There are 3-day juice cleanses, pills and drinks. I clicked on one for detox teas and, of course, that led to more suggestions.

The idea of doing something over the weekend that will cleanse your body of things that are hurting you is certainly tempting – but unlikely. Some of these detox programs remind me of doing the prep for a colonoscopy. But purging your body by urinating, bowel movement or vomiting can be more harmful than beneficial.

Detox diets are said to eliminate toxins from your body, improve health, and promote weight loss. There have been only a small number of studies on DIY detoxification programs in people. From what I found, the benefits seem to be minimal. There have been no studies on long-term effects of “detoxification” programs.

Juicing and detox diets can cause initial weight loss because of low intake of calories but that they tend to lead to weight gain once a person resumes a normal diet. There are also plenty of warnings on these products and online. Any harmful effects are more likely in people with a history of gastrointestinal disease, colon surgery, severe hemorrhoids, kidney disease, or heart disease. Some “detoxification” programs may include laxatives, which can cause diarrhea severe enough to lead to dehydration and electrolyte imbalances.

The idea of eliminating dangerous chemicals, such as those from forms of pollution, is appealing, but most of those cannot be eliminated by the methods available over the counter.

Hospitals and medical facilities do legitimate detoxifications and you likely first heard the term related to people who were dangerously intoxicated (drunk) or had an overdose of drugs or ingest some type of poisonous substance.

Detoxification is the physiological or medicinal removal of toxic substances from a living organism, and in the human body, that process is mainly carried out by the liver.

Marketers have capitalized on the scientific fact and you can find “liver cleanses” available too. On one site, it had a list of symptoms that supposedly indicate that your liver needs help: You crave sugar, feel like you need more energy or your bowel movements aren’t as regular as you’d like them to be. I think everyone I know could check “”yes” next to one or all three of those.

This week I was good candidate for a fast way to eliminate whatever is making me feel lousy but I don’t think a cleanse is the way to go. Read the ingredients on even the mildest of detox products, such as the teas, and you’ll find “natural” ingredients that you have never heard of and don’t know their effects. Herbs like borage, comfrey, groomwell, and coltsfoot have “pyrrolizidine alkaloids” that can gum up the tiny blood vessels inside the liver over time or all at once (if you take a lot). Other herbs like Atractylis gummifera, celandine, chaparral, germander, and pennyroyal oil (used in tea) can also cause liver problems.

An article on webmd.com on how to keep your liver healthy has safe advice on what you should do.

MORE
nccih.nih.gov/health/detoxes-and-cleanses-what-you-need-to-know

The Many Associations with May First

May Day (May first) is an ancient northern hemisphere spring festival. May 1 is a national holiday in more than 80 countries and is celebrated unofficially in many other countries.

Vulcan & Maia
Vulcan and Maia (1585) by Bartholomäus Spranger

The month of May goes back to the Greek goddess Maia for its name. She is the most important of the Seven Sisters (the Pleiades) and the mother of Hermes (Mercury). Some form of this goddess’s name was known to people from Ireland and as far away as India. The Romans called her Maius, goddess of Summer, and honored her during Ambarvalia, a family festival for the purification and protection of farmland.

My holiday cactuses usually bloom for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter but this year they somehow knew it was May Day.

The earliest May Day celebrations appeared in pre-Christian times, with the festival of Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers, and the Walpurgis Night celebrations of the Germanic countries

In the Celtic cultures, May was called Mai or Maj, a month of sexual freedom. Green was worn during this month to honor the Earth Mother.

May 1 was the Celtic festival of Beltane, a festival celebrating the fertility of all things. Cattle were driven through the Beltane bonfires for purification and fertility.

In Wales, Creiddylad was a character connected with this festival and was often called the May Queen. The maypole and its dance are a remnant of these old festivities.

Bona Dea, the Roman Good Goddess, had her festival on the night between May 2 and 3. No men were allowed to attend.

The Greeks had a special festival for the god Pan during May. Pan was a wild-looking deity that was half-man, half-goat. Pan invented the syrinx, or pan-pipes, made out of reeds.

In Finland, May 1 was celebrated as Rowan Witch Day, a time of honoring the goddess Rauni, who was associated with the mouton ash or rowan whose twigs and branches were used as protection against witches and evil in that part of the world.

In more modern tradition, May Day was also celebrated by some early European settlers of the American continent. In some parts of the United States, May Baskets are made. These are small baskets usually filled with flowers or treats and left at someone’s doorstep. The giver rings the bell and runs away. The person receiving the basket tries to catch the fleeing giver and if they catch the person, a kiss is exchanged.

Modern May Day ceremonies in the U.S. include the holidays “Green Root” (pagan) and “Red Root” (labor) traditions.

International Workers’ Day (AKA May Day) is a celebration of the international labor movement and left-wing movements. It commonly sees organized street demonstrations and marches by working people and their labor unions throughout most of the world. For example, the Occupy Wall Street movement called for a General Strike that year on May Day.

NPR reports that May Day is “the opposite of capitalism.”

On May 1, 1886, anarchists and labor activists in Chicago began a multi-day strike in what became known as the Haymarket Affair. The protests turned violent when police attacked workers. Meeting in the city’s Haymarket Square, things turned bloodier and a bomb even exploded and police and civilians were killed.

Walpurgis Eve

Walpurgis Night
Walpurgis Night at Heidelberg Thingstätte

Tonight is Walpurgis Night (AKA Saint Walpurgis Night or Eve) which is celebrated on the night of 30 April and the day of 1 May.

It is the eve of the Christian feast day of Saint Walpurga, an 8th-century abbess in Francia, and commemorates her traditional canonization date and the movement of her relics to Eichstätt on 1 May in the year 870.

But the origins of the Christian holiday date back to earlier pagan celebrations of fertility rites and the coming of spring. After the Norse were Christianized, the pagan celebration became combined with the legend of St. Walburga which was a common way to transition pagans to Christianity. It is likely that the shared date allowed people to celebrate both events under church law without fear of reprisal.

Saint Walpurga was believed to have cured the illnesses of many local residents and battled pests, rabies, and whooping cough, as well as witchcraft. In Germanic folklore, Hexennacht (Dutch: heksennacht), literally “Witches’ Night”, was believed to be the night of a witches’ meeting on the Brocken, the highest peak in the Harz Mountains, a range of wooded hills in central Germany.

Christians prayed to Saint Walpurga for her intercession to protect them from witchcraft. Bonfires on the Eve are meant to ward off evil spirits and witches.

Local variants of Walpurgis Night are observed throughout Europe in the Netherlands, Germany, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Sweden, Lithuania, Latvia, Finland, and Estonia. In Denmark, the tradition of using bonfires to ward off the witches is observed as Saint John’s Eve.

Your soundtrack for tonight should be Procol Harum’s “Repent Walpurgis” from their first album in 1967 – the same album that gave is “A Whiter Shade of Pale.”

Metaverse or Multiverse?

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

I have already written several essays about the metaverse and multiverse on another blog that I have about technology and education called Serendipity35. You have probably heard the two terms used in the media.

Much of the talk (and hype) about the metaverse has been around Mark Zuckerberg’s ideas about building such a place. When he changed the name of Facebook’s parent company to Meta, you probably heard a story about the metaverse where he expects Facebook and a lot more to be going to in the future.

Who will build the metaverse? Certainly, Meta wants to be a big player, but it would have been like asking in the 1980s “Who will build the Internet?” The answer is that it will be many people and companies.

But some people have suggested that rather than the metaverse – an alternate space entered via technology – we should be thinking about the multiverse. Metaverse and multiverse sound similar and the definitions may seem to overlap at times but they are not the same things.

If all of this sounds rather tech-nerdy, consider that most of us thought of the Internet in that way in its earliest days. Now, even a youngster knows what it is and how to navigate it. The business magazine Forbes is writing about the multiverse and about the metaverse because – like the Internet – it knows it will be a place of commerce.

I particularly like the more radical ideas that the metaverse might be viewed as a moment in time or and that we may be already living in a multiverse.

In one Serendipity35 article, I wondered about when (not if) education would enter the metaverse.

To add to whatever confusion exists about meta- versus multi-, there is an increasing list of other realties that technology is offering us with abbreviations like AR, VR, XR, and MR.

I am not a fanatic about the Marvel Comics Universe and its many films, but I am a fan of the character Doctor Strange (played by Benedict Cumberbatch). The new film Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness takes him and some “mystical allies into the mind-bending and dangerous alternate realities of the Multiverse to confront a mysterious new adversary.”

There are people in our real world who find the idea of multiverses terrifying, so “madness” might be a good word to attach to it. The Marvel version of the multiverse is defined as “the collection of alternate universes which share a universal hierarchy; it is a subsection of the larger Omniverse, the collection of all alternate universes. A large variety of these universes were originated as forms of divergence from other realities, where an event with different possible outcomes gives rise to different universes, one for each outcome. Some can seem to be taking place in the past or future due to differences in how time passes in each universe.”

The film may not be science-based but theoretical scientists have been theorizing about multiple universes, alternate universes, and alternative timelines for almost as long as science-fiction writers have been creating them. Probably everyone reading this (and definitely the person writing this) has thought about the idea of how changing some events in your past life might have created different outcomes. Writers and filmmakers may think about trying to stop JFK’s assassination or what if the Nazis had won WWII, but you and I probably think more personally. What if I hadn’t gone to that college, or hadn’t taken that job, or had married someone else, or not married at all?

For now, multiverses exist in our minds, but someday, perhaps, they will be real. Or whatever “real” means at that point in time.

Detective Edgar Allan Poe

Poe
Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) by Félix Valloton 

I saw mention that an upcoming Netflix limited series, “The Fall of the House of Usher” which is based on the writings of Edgar Allan Poe, lost its lead actor, Frank Langella, when he was fired following a misconduct investigation. The item got me thinking about Mr. Poe.

Edgar Allan Poe’s story, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” caused quite a stir in the literary world when it appeared in 1841. Because of it and some subsequent stories, Poe is credited with inventing the modern detective story.  There had been mysteries and crime stories written before that with clever people and police but the modern detective tale is from Poe.

His story is about a case of a gruesome double-murder in a home along the fictional Paris street Rue Morgue. Witnesses’ stories don’t match and each clue seems to undo the previous ones. The police are baffled. Enter Poe’s detective, C. Auguste Dupin.

Dupin solves the mystery not by going over the ground as the police would do or interviewing witnesses or looking for blood or physical clues. He solves it from his home by reading the details in the newspaper. He is an “armchair detective.”  His key clue in “Murders in the Rue Morgue” are just two words allegedly spoken during the crime – “mon Dieu!”

Poe only used Dupin in two more stories, “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt,” and “The Purloined Letter.” If Dupin’s method sounds like Sherlock Holmes, that makes sense.

Arthur Conan Doyle would later write about how he was influenced by Poe. In reference to Poe’s detective stories, he said that “Each is a root from which a whole literature has developed… Where was the detective story until Poe breathed the breath of life into it?”

Dupin narrates his cases to his good friend in the same way that Dr. Watson is the recorder of Holmes’ cases. (Dupin’s chronicler is an anonymous first-person narrator while Watson actually becomes involved directly in the cases.) Watson actually says when he first encounters Holmes’s methods of deduction ’‘You remind me of Edgar Allen Poe’s Dupin. I had no idea that such individuals did exist outside of stories.” (“A Study in Scarlet,” 1887)

Holmes actually seems a bit insulted by the reference. “No doubt you think that you are complimenting me in comparing me to Dupin. Now, in my opinion, Dupin was a very inferior fellow. That trick of his of breaking in on his friends’ thoughts with an apropos remark after a quarter of an hour’s silence is really very showy and superficial. He had some analytical genius, no doubt; but he was by no means such a phenomenon as Poe appeared to imagine.” Of course, that is Holmes’ and not Doyle’s opinion.

Both detectives are very methodical in their discoveries and use rational means. The stories become puzzles for both detectives and for readers. The game is afoot.

Poe called Dupin’s process “ratiocination.” Poe wrote in a letter “These tales of ratiocination owe most of their popularity to being something in a new key. I do not mean to say that they are not ingenious—but people think them more ingenious than they are—on account of their method and air of method.”

Poe engraving

There are a number of parts of Poe’s own life story that are mysteries. I haven’t read a very complete account of his one year at the University of Virginia other than he was a boozing and gambling freshman who clearly was not much interested in academics. But the biggest mystery of his life are the very odd circumstances of his death. There are multiple theories – none definitive.

On October 3, 1849, Poe was found wandering the streets of Baltimore. He was delirious and rambling. He was wearing someone else’s clothes. The attending physician John Moran described his clothing as “a stained, faded, old bombazine coat, pantaloons of a similar character, a pair of worn-out shoes run down at the heels, and an old straw hat.” Taken to a hospital, he slipped in and out of consciousness and was never coherent enough to tell what had happened to him. He died on October 7.

At first, it was assumed he had either drunk himself to death or it was drugs or a combination of the two things that brought him down. A more modern theory is that he was a victim of cooping.

Cooping was a 19th-century method of voter fraud. Gangs would kidnap unsuspecting victims and through beatings, booze or drugs would force them to vote for a specific candidate. This would be done multiple times under multiple disguised identities.

A very new and less likely but entertaining theory is suggested in the film The Raven. In this fiction, there is a serial killer targeting Poe by reenacting some of his stories.

As with Stephen King today, some people assumed that the mind that created Poe’s strange stories must have been equally strange. “The Fall of the House of Usher” is about the end of a family tormented by their own tragic legacy. The delusional murderer in “The Tell-Tale Heart” will betray himself with his madness. And the worlds in the stories such as “The Pit and the Pendulum” and “The Cask of Amontillado” are full of fear and hate. Poe’s image to many people is of a madman.

Doyle took Poe’s new genre much further than Poe. Perhaps, if Poe had continued writing Dupin stories he would have had a hit series and have been more financially secure. “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” was published in Graham’s Magazine where he worked as an editor. They paid him $56 for it, which was a big bump from the $9 he was paid for his poem “The Raven.”