The science of ‘voodoo death’

Can you die from a voodoo curse? Physiologist Walter Cannon was better known for his work on emotion but was fascinated by the idea that someone could die from fright – something he nicknamed ‘voodoo death’.

He collected anecdotes from around the world of people who had died after being cursed in a now classic 1942 article.

But rather than simply recount the tales as curiosities, he speculated on the medical basis of how someone might die of fright – triggering a whole line of research into neurocardiology, the study of how the brain and heart work together.

Cannon’s ideas were recently revisited by physician Esther Sternberg who looked at whether scientific developments since 1942 have made us any the wiser to this intriguing phenomenon.

While there is no clear idea on whether the belief in a curse directly kills many people, it seems Connon’s ideas on fear’s effect on the body had remarkable foresight and preceded many later discoveries about body-brain connections.

If you’re interested in hearing more, psychiatrist Stuart Brown gave one of the prestigious 2006 ‘TED’ talks on play, which is available to view on the National Institute of Play’s website.

Link to Cannon’s 1942 “Voodoo” Death article.
Link to Sternberg’s 2002 update.

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