Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

"Scared To Death," More Than Just An Expression

Date:
December 27, 2001
Source:
University Of California - San Diego
Summary:
In the legendary Sherlock Holmes story "The Hound of the Baskervilles," by Arthur Conan Doyle, Sir Charles Baskerville dies from a heart attack brought on by extreme psychological stress. Findings from a new medical article by University of California, San Diego Sociologist David Phillips suggest that people can indeed be scared to death, both in fact as well as fiction.

In the legendary Sherlock Holmes story "The Hound of the Baskervilles," by Arthur Conan Doyle, Sir Charles Baskerville dies from a heart attack brought on by extreme psychological stress. Findings from a new medical article by University of California, San Diego Sociologist David Phillips suggest that people can indeed be scared to death, both in fact as well as fiction. Phillips' research, published in the December 2001 issue of the British Medical Journal, may provide the most persuasive evidence to date linking extreme psychological stress and fatal heart attacks. In the study, Phillips, a well-known authority on mortality trends and the social and psychological factors affecting them, collaborated with UCSD Mathematics Professor Ian Abramson and UCSD students George Liu, Kennon Kwok, Jason Jarvinen, Wei Zhang.

"I have often wondered if people could indeed die by fright," said Phillips, "and if so, how this could be investigated quantitatively. I recalled that in 'The Hound of the Baskervilles,' Sir Charles Baskerville dies of a fatal heart attack, apparently because he is frightened to death by the hound. Since Arthur Conan Doyle was a physician as well as an author, I wondered if his story was based on medical intuition or literary license, i.e. were fatal heart attacks and stress linked in fact as well as fiction?"

Although numerous laboratory studies have shown cardiovascular changes following psychological stress, for ethical reasons only non-fatal stressors can be studied in the laboratory and one may not be able to generalize beyond these mild stressors to determine if, in the real world, fatal heart attacks are precipitated by extreme stress.

"The challenge was to find a way of testing this hypothesis that would circumvent the ethical problems of the laboratory experiment and yet retain some of its vigor," explained Phillips. "The best solution seemed to be to use a natural experiment - a real life event that met certain criteria. First, this real life event had to have distressing psychological effects on one segment of the population but not on others. In addition, it shouldn't actually be a dangerous event - it should only be perceived as such. Lastly, this event should not be linked to any changes in the quality of medical services."

It was not easy for Phillips and his collaborators to find such an event that met these criteria, but they did. The real life event they choose is connected to a Chinese and Japanese superstition. In Mandarin, Cantonese, and Japanese, the words "death" and "four" are pronounced nearly identically, and consequently the number "four" evokes discomfort and apprehension in many Chinese and Japanese people. Because of this, the number "four" is avoided and omitted in some Chinese and Japanese floor and room numberings, restaurants, and telephone numbers. In addition, the mainland Chinese air force avoids the number "four" in designating its military aircraft, apparently because of the superstitious association between "four" and "death."

The study by Phillips and his co-authors finds that cardiac deaths peak on the fourth of the month for Americans of Chinese and Japanese descent, and that this pattern is not seen among whites. The study used computerized U.S. death certificates to examine more than 200,000 Chinese and Japanese deaths, and 47,000,000 white deaths, from 1973 to 1998.

"Conan Doyle suggests that Sir Charles Baskerville was particularly susceptible to a stress-induced heart attack because he had a chronic heart condition," said Phillips. "If Doyle's medical intuition was correct, deaths from chronic heart disease should display a particularly large fourth-day peak. Sir Charles Baskerville's superstitious fear of an avenging spectral hound was shared and reinforced by his neighbors. Similarly, Chinese and Japanese superstitious fears are likely to be stronger where they are reinforced by large Chinese and Japanese populations."

Phillips' evidence supports both of these expectations. For U.S. Chinese and Japanese, there are 13% more cardiac deaths than expected on the fourth of the month. This fourth-day increase is still larger (27% above expected) in California, where Chinese and Japanese populations are concentrated.

Phillips and his co-authors tested nine, alternative, non-psychosomatic explanations for their findings, including the possibility that, on the fourth, Chinese and Japanese might change diets, increase alcohol consumption, refuse medicines, or overstrain themselves. The researchers concluded that their data suggest a link between psychological stress and heart attacks.

"Our findings are consistent with the existence of psychosomatic processes, with the scientific literature, and with a famous non-scientific story. The 'Baskerville effect' seems to exist both in fact and in fiction, and suggests that Conan Doyle was not only a great writer, but a remarkably intuitive physician as well."

Phillips has published extensively on the role that psychosomatic factors can play in precipitating and delaying death among certain groups. He has studied the effects of gambling and medical errors on mortality rates as well as the ability of some people to prolong their lives for a significant event. For more information on Phillips' work visit his web site at: http://weber.ucsd.edu/~dphillip/ To view the British Medical Journal paper in its entirety please go to: http://weber.ucsd.edu/~dphillip/baskerville.html


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by University Of California - San Diego. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Cite This Page:

University Of California - San Diego. ""Scared To Death," More Than Just An Expression." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 27 December 2001. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2001/12/011225094518.htm>.
University Of California - San Diego. (2001, December 27). "Scared To Death," More Than Just An Expression. ScienceDaily. Retrieved August 1, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2001/12/011225094518.htm
University Of California - San Diego. ""Scared To Death," More Than Just An Expression." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2001/12/011225094518.htm (accessed August 1, 2014).

Share This




More Health & Medicine News

Friday, August 1, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

House Republicans Vote to Sue Obama Over Healthcare Law

House Republicans Vote to Sue Obama Over Healthcare Law

Reuters - US Online Video (July 31, 2014) The Republican-led House of Representatives votes to sue President Obama, accusing him of overstepping his executive authority in making changes to the Affordable Care Act. Mana Rabiee reports. Video provided by Reuters
Powered by NewsLook.com
Despite Health Questions, E-Cigs Are Beneficial: Study

Despite Health Questions, E-Cigs Are Beneficial: Study

Newsy (July 31, 2014) Citing 81 previous studies, new research out of London suggests the benefits of smoking e-cigarettes instead of regular ones outweighs the risks. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Dangerous Bacteria Kills One in Florida

Dangerous Bacteria Kills One in Florida

AP (July 31, 2014) Sarasota County, Florida health officials have issued a warning against eating raw oysters and exposing open wounds to coastal and inland waters after a dangerous bacteria killed one person and made another sick. (July 31) Video provided by AP
Powered by NewsLook.com
Health Insurers' Profits Slide

Health Insurers' Profits Slide

Reuters - Business Video Online (July 30, 2014) Obamacare-related costs were said to be behind the profit plunge at Wellpoint and Humana, but Wellpoint sees the new exchanges boosting its earnings for the full year. Fred Katayama reports. Video provided by Reuters
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:

Breaking News:
from the past week

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

Environment News

Technology News



Save/Print:
Share:

Free Subscriptions


Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

Get Social & Mobile


Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

Have Feedback?


Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
Mobile: iPhone Android Web
Follow: Facebook Twitter Google+
Subscribe: RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins