PSYCHOGENIC DEATH, THEY WAY YOU CAN LITERALLY THINK YOUR WAY INTO THE GRAVE!
So this is kind of a weird piece to write about. It almost makes me hesitate to think too hard about it! Ok, not really. But this story does reinforce how much we take for granted, and how much we don’t really know and understand, about our brains. Well, and just how much how we use them affects pretty much everything. Have you ever heard of psychogenic death? It essentially means that you are willing yourself to die. Just that, will power and reinforced thinking. Another term for it is dysexistential syndrome. And while that last has the word sex in it, we’re talking about very different brain chemicals. Yes, you can think your way to death, chemically!
PSYCHOGENIC DEATH’S BEGAN WITH 1940’S RESEARCH AS THEORY, NOW SCIENTIFIC REALITY?
The origins of these theories go back to the 1940’s, when the Harvard psychologist Walter Bradford Cannon did research on cases of voodoo death. As you might imagine, those were cases where people supposedly died from getting cursed. If you want a disturbing layman’s explanation, just go watch the movie, Serpent and the Rainbow. It might help you understand the idea of psychogenic death. Cannon is the one who first coined the phrase, “fight or flight.” So, his work remains a major foundation in psychology today. Cannon’s work on voodoo deaths left him with the certainty that they all couldn’t just be wives’ tales or superstition. In other words, some of those cases involved people thinking themselves to death, because of fear and belief. Chemically!
PSYCHOGENIC DEATH IS THE FINAL STAGE OF FREEZE, THE THIRD ITERATION AFTER FIGHT OR FLIGHT
So all of this has been just theory till now. Well, logical theory, to be fair. But beyond fight or flight, there’s now a third category: freeze. A “freeze” is what psychologists call passive coping. That’s what can happen to someone when a perceived threat seems to be inescapable. In other words, you freeze to conserve energy until the threat is gone. Well, if it ever goes, that is. But if that threat never leaves, or if the perception of it doesn’t, you can lose hope of ever escaping. And that’s a road to possible psychogenic death. Because your brain’s prefrontal cortex drops the production of dopamine in the basal ganglia. Precipitously. And that there is the feeling of hopelessness.
But if that feeling of hopelessness goes on too long, the brain never restarts that integral dopamine production! And that can start a downward spiral that has 5 stages. They are, withdrawal, apathy, aboulia, Akinesia, and lastly, of course, psychogenic death.
And as a side note, don’t really watch Serpent and the Rainbow. It’s disturbing, especially for men. Not chemically, but deeply!