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Can you become intoxicated by the power of suggestion?

Mind over matter

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Can you become intoxicated by the power of suggestion?

Asked by Jeff Johnson of Sheffield, United Kingdom

Mind over matter goes a long way. Reports of intoxication occurring merely through the power of suggestion and not through alcohol ingestion appear from time to time.

An early example of this is a 19th century incident in the US state of Maine. A logging camp was stocked with bottles of vanilla extract containing alcohol. Workers at the camp would occasionally break into the camp's stores, drink the vanilla extract, and become intoxicated.

Eventually, the logging camp managers changed to stocking bottles of vanilla extract not containing alcohol. The workers still occasionally broke into the stores, still drank the vanilla extract, and still got intoxicated - without alcohol!

Mind over matter can happen with non-alcoholic drinks too. "What you think may be as important as what you drink." This is according to Dr Andrew Scholey, a professor of psychopharmacology at the University of Northumbria in Newcastle in the UK.

Scholey reported to the British Psychological Society in 2000 on his study of the psychological effects upon drinkers of caffeinated and decaffeinate coffee. As everyone is told, caffeinated coffee (CC) makes you stay awake and keeps you more alert. Decaffeinated coffee (DC) supposedly does not.

Scholey and research colleagues conducted a simple experiment. They informed each subject in the experiment, all of whom were coffee drinkers, that each would be assigned to one of two groups (A or B). They informed subjects that those in A would be given CC, those in B would be given DC, each subject would then take a computerised test, and each subject would be told which group they were in (and what they were given).

In reality, without being informed, all subjects were divided into four groups (A1, A2, B1, B2). Those in A1 were told they were getting CC and were given CC. Those in A2 were told they were getting CC but were given DC. Those in B1 were told they were getting DC and were given DC. Those in B2 were told they were getting DC and were given CC.

The researchers found that, as predicted, subjects who drank CC were faster and more accurate on a computerized test - but only if they thought they had been given CC. Subjects who drank CC but thought it was DC performed less well.

Most interesting of all, subjects who thought they had drunk CC, but in reality had drunk DC, performed on the tests as if they had really had drunk CC. Thus, what you think is real can be more important than what is real. Mind over matter goes a long way.

Stephen Juan, Ph.D. is an anthropologist at the University of Sydney. Email your Odd Body questions to s.juan@edfac.usyd.edu.au

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