Your belief can kill you


What you believe in is of vital importance; it may even kill you.

About half a century ago, a woman died in Baltimore City Hospital on her 23rd birthday because of a belief of hers.  She was born on a Friday the thirteenth.  The midwife who helped in the childbirth was a member of a voodoo cult in Georgia’s Okefenokee Swamp.  Friday the 13th was an ominous day for this woman and so she placed a curse on all the three children whose births she assisted that day.  She cursed that each child would die before its 16th, 21st and 23rd birthday respectively. 

The first child died in an auto accident at the age of 15.  The second died on her 21st birthday during a shooting incident in a nightclub.  The third was stricken with terror as her 23rd birthday approached and was admitted in Baltimore City Hospital.  She had no physical illness whatever.  The doctors assured her that nothing fatal would happen to her.  She was given all the care in the hospital.  Yet she died in the hospital bed.  There was no rational explanation for her death.

This is not a story, but a real incident described by psychologist M E P Seligman in the book, Helplessness: On depression, development, and death.  What killed the woman on her 23rd birthday was nothing but fear, fear engendered by her belief in the power of the voodoo curse.  The fear was reinforced by her knowledge of the fate of the other two persons whose death had seemed to comply with the curse.  The woman was not a follower of the voodoo cult, but she feared its curse.  She feared it because she believed that it was powerful enough to affect her life.  It is that belief which killed her.

What we believe will change the course of our life.  The firmer the belief, the greater its impact on us. 

Soon after the war in Laos in 1980, a phenomenon which came to be called ‘the Hmong sudden death syndrome’ was noticed in America.  About 25 Laotian refugees in America died of this phenomenon.  There was no rationally explicable cause for their death.  They suddenly developed a breathing difficulty and succumbed to it too soon.  One such patient, Vang, was taken to a Hmong woman who was a shaman, a priest and a doctor in the Laotian tradition.  The shaman declared that the illness was caused by the unhappy spirits.  She conducted some religious ceremonies to appease the spirits and Vang was cured totally. 

Vang’s belief in his traditional medicine saved him.  But the same belief could have killed him had not the shaman been found in time.  Not even the best of the Western scientific medicine would have saved his life. 

Belief is such a powerful thing.  No wonder we have thousands of people today who are ready to kill for their beliefs.  Religious fundamentalism and terrorism is spreading its tentacles farther and wider day by day.  The beliefs of these fundamentalists and terrorists are not any more rational than the fear-generated belief of that 23-year old woman or that of Vang.  But the more rational world is held to ransom by such beliefs. 

It is the tragedy of our times that even if we escape the threats of our own belief, we may fall prey to other people’s beliefs.

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8 Responses to Your belief can kill you

  1. Raghuram Ekambaram says:

    Isn’t this all the more reason to distance oneslef from such unexamined beliefs? If we find that belief is strong enough to induce ourselves to kill others or even oneself, and if we find it reasonable to believe it is wrong to kill others or even oneslef, don’t you think reason trumps belief? I do.

    Raghuram Ekambaram

    • Matheikal says:

      Of course, Raghuram, reason trumps belief. I am with Reason through and through. But I am now a student of psychology. As a student I cannot condemn belief; I have to study it….

  2. Shajan says:

    This touches the tip of an iceberg. Why do people find it necessary to believe ? I was fascinated by this question for a long time.

    May be there is no choice here. May be rational life is possible only by holding onto somthing irrational. That is why psychology is so important.


    • Matheikal says:

      Shajan, first of all your comment came as a surprise, a big pleasant surprise. Thanks for visiting.

      I agree with you that I’ve only touched upon a small fraction of the topic. I do intend to go much deeper into it slowly as i continue my study of psychology systematically. The question that you’ve raised: why do people find it necessary to believe? is of much interest to me.

  3. pw says:

    I always knew belief is powerful but never knew of this facet.
    Enlightening read 🙂

  4. dawnanddew says:

    This is very true. Recently, my cousin came to attend the function. She went to Palani Murugan Temple for fulfilling some prayer. She was content with her moderate faith in religion. So she cut an inch or two of her lock and was happy. But there was a sudden yelling of her name. She was called by a mad tribe like group of some 200 people who sadly happen to be her illiterate kith and kins. After a drama of claiming herself to be the goddess, a lady demanded her whole lock. All of them joined hand in glove with each other. My cousin’s husband, an IT professional ! stood helpless. They told about all the mishaps that happened in their family and claimed her lock so that she could avoid any future incidents of that nature. She was forced to go bald-headed! She went without attending the function feeling shy to show her face. We may not believe in religion and blind faiths. But we do become a prey to others’ faiths. Very true, sir.

    • Matheikal says:

      That’s a rather shocking episode, Dawn. I am really alarmed. From what I understand it looks like jealousy, the most common and most vicious human foible, is the real villain here.

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