Most people have heard of the placebo effect. The name comes from the Latin word meaning “I will please,” and refers to the phenomenon that people who are given an ineffective medication after being told that it will ameliorate their symptoms often find that the symptoms do, indeed, abate. The mechanism is still not well elucidated — it has been suggested that some of the effect might be caused by the brain producing “endogenous opioids” when a placebo is administered, causing decreased sensations of pain, feelings of well-being, and sounder sleep. But the fact is, we still don’t fully understand it.
Less well-known, but equally well-documented, is the nocebo effect. “Nocebo” means “I will harm” in Latin, and it is more or less the placebo effect turned on its head. If a person is told that something will cause pain, or bring him/her to harm, it sometimes does — even if there’s no rational reason why it would. Individuals who believe in voodoo curses, for example, sometimes show actual medically detectable symptoms, even though such curses are merely empty superstition. Nevertheless, if you believe in them, you might feel their effects.
Naturally, this further bolsters the superstition itself, which ramps up the anxiety and fear, which makes the nocebo more likely to happen the next time, and so round and round it goes. And this seems to be what is happening right now in Uganda — a bizarre phenomenon called “numbers disease.”
In “numbers disease,” an affected individual suddenly notices a raised pattern on his/her skin that looks like a number. The number that appears, it is said, represents the number of days the person has left. Once the number shows up, the individual begins to sicken, and when the allotted time is up, the person dies.