William Blake and the Placebo (and Nocebo) Effect

You have probably all heard of the placebo and nocebo effects (and perhaps the former moreso than the latter). The words are Latin for “I will please” or “I will harm” respectively, and might be construed as the red and blue pills that Morpheus offers Neo in The Matrix, or the potions and pills that Alice takes in Wonderland — one pill makes you bigger, the other makes you small.

Experimental science very much deplores the placebo and nocebo effects, not only because they are uncontrollable but also because they smack of “magic” (which they are), and tend to throw a monkey wrench in the works. Nonetheless, placebo and nocebo effects are unavoidable and, moreover, are connected with the issues of Observer Created Reality (OCR) or Consciousness Created Reality (CCR) in the musings of much contemporary physics.

Basically, it all has to do with what is called “intentionality” or “the intentionality of consciousness” and which is true creativity. Every act of attention or perception is also an intentional act, not at all passive. And this is what Iain McGilchrist means in The Master and his Emissary when he speaks of the “mode of attention” determining the “mode of being”, or as William Blake put it, “As a Man is, so He Sees.” This is very much the same as the principle of Heraclitus that “character is fate”, which is also, basically, a statement about placebo and nocebo effect. Moreover, what we call “sorcery” or “magic” is, as Castaneda records it in his experience, the manipulation of intent more than perception because it is this intent that shapes or guides the act of perception and the nature of the perceived.

This is also the nature of propaganda or “perception management”. The propagandist does not manipulate perception so much as this intentionality. Many people are vulnerable to propaganda and perception management because they are distracted by the belief that the propagandist is trying to manipulate their “thinking”, which is only a secondary objective. But by manipulating intent, which is usually the act of consciousness at a more subliminal or subtle level of perception and thinking, the propagandist can alter the nature of thinking and perception itself. In those terms, it can just as well be said that the propagandist exploits the underlying principles involved in the placebo and nocebo effects. And since most people are oblivious about the real nature of perception and the implied intentionality of all perception, they are easily had without even knowing it.

The easiest way to understand William Blake’s poetry and mythology is to realise that, for Blake, it’s all placebo or nocebo effect. There is no boundary, no moment when the placebo effect (or nocebo effect) begins or finishes. It is continuous. This world-shaping or world=forming potency of consciousness, considered as intentionality, is what Blake calls “the Human Imagination” or “Imagination” more generally, and it is the “Divine Imagination” because it is the creative principle in the human form, regardless of whether it manifests in placebo or nocebo outcomes. And whether the outcome is one or the other is tied up with the belief system. The belief system determines how that intent is to be made actual. It provides the blueprint or specifications, as it were. In those terms, the Ulro, or Shadowland that we call “ordinary reality”, is actually a product of the nocebo effect. It is an intentional object, made by the mind of man and is tightly-coupled with the belief system.  So, basically, all of Blake’s poetry and mythology is an examination of how the placebo and nocebo effects, as the work of “Imagination”, play out in reality. In Blake’s terms, then, all that we call “reality” is an intentional object, and everything in that reality is the manifestation of an intent — an intent which manifests either as placebo or nocebo characteristics. Notions of Heaven or Hell, nirvana or samsara, are connected with the placebo and nocebo effects.

It is in this very sense that Jean Gebser insists that the magical structure of consciousness (or the mythical and archaic, too) are still very much active in the psychic ecology of modern man, albeit at a “level” below the ego consciousness. Gebser was particularly concerned about the magical structure precisely because of the nocebo effect and its tendency to become, as we say today, “viral” — or what we also call “psychic contagion”.

Blake’s “Zoas” have both their unfallen and their fallen aspects, and these are somewhat connected with the placebo and nocebo effects, respectively. And so, too, is the “New Jerusalem” and the “Ulro”.

So, understanding the “Divine Imagination” as intentionality, and the working out of this intentionality in terms of placebo and nocebo effects, goes a long way in unraveling the enigma of Blake’s otherwise cryptic mythology. And I’d say, too, that the chief value of Castaneda’s writings is that they are all about the workings of “intent” as the formative or creative power in the human psyche.


11 responses to “William Blake and the Placebo (and Nocebo) Effect”

  1. Scott Preston says :

    Just noted this in the news today “Just the fear of big predators can alter an entire ecosystem”


    In other words, feelings or emotions are also an integral part of an ecosystem, which adds additional depth of meaning to Holling’s Adaptive Cycle.

    • alex jay says :

      “In other words, feelings or emotions are also an integral part of an ecosystem, which adds additional depth of meaning to Holling’s Adaptive Cycle.”

      Quite true. It seems, in fact, to be the driving force to social manipulation/percepton management as well – courtesy of Freud and his ilk – utilised so effectively by the “Creel Commission” during WWI and extended after to the corpoate “consumer culture” through Bernays etc. So again, we need to apply Khayyam’s caution. On that note, I’d like to share a wonderful analysis – including that point – by Chris Hedges, which I trust you and your readers will find informative?

      The second part of the presentation follows automatically, or it can be accessed on the bar to the right.

      • Scott Preston says :

        Part II to Hedge’s speech does not come up automatically, so here it is

        I’ve read Wages of Rebellion, but I think his lecture is much better.

        • abdulmonem says :

          After listening to the two videos, I felt sad at the absence of the realization that there is a divine protection for those who work for justice, truth and the eradication of oppression in the world. All the revolutions that were led by prophets or secular gurus are meant to correct the perversions of the status quo, only to end after the designated cycle into collapse. As if the cycle of rejuvenation is the law of life, birth ,death and rebirth. Each cycle with new consciousness that is working hard to identify itself with the divine awareness realizing the meaning of the message of returning to him. All are working hard to ward that end whether through placebo or necebo.

    • Steve Lavendusky says :

      Scott, google CONSCIOUNESS, SPACE, AND THE FOUNDATION OF NEW SCIENCE by one of my favorite thinkers Yasuhiko Genku Kimura.

  2. Mike McDermott says :

    Here’s an email I wrote to a friend of mine on 13/02/16:


    Previous messageNext messageBack to messages
    Musings on Axicebology‏

    Musings on Axicebology
    Mike McDermott 13/02/2016 Flag this message

    Hi again Russell,

    I go for a walk along the beach every evening, and while returning home I recalled a word I coined a few weeks ago called “axicebology”. It is cognate with axiology, the study of values, and placebo / nocebo, being opposite ends the range of psychosomatic affects and effects on one.

    If brought into being, axicebology would study the co-evolution, and other interactions, between health and the values one holds, such as why aboriginals die after a pointing the bone ritual (is that true?) at the nocebo end, the power of positive thinking at the placebo end, and all sorts in between – for example, how and why the victim mentality transmits through the generations.

    As such, it would draw from many disciplines, including various branches of medicine, psychology, anthropology, hermeneutics, identity studies, sociology – the list goes on. I believe there to be all sorts of bits and pieces lying around everywhere, waiting to be developed into an integrated whole.

    From my values perspective to your health perspective: any thoughts? Is there such a discipline, but under a different name, and if not, should there be?

    All the Best,



    Sadly, he has not replied.


  3. abdulmonem says :

    Value is a do and do not project and not a research project. This is to make it easy for the human in order not to be drowned in the limitless sea of knowledge and its never ending mental and emotional waves. Faith in the epistemological oneness of ourselves and our cosmos saves us the trouble of getting lost. Sharia is a boundary on the boundaryless sea of truth. Pursuance path of value ensures health. All types of words are energetic entities and through their qualities deliver their meaningful impacts. We hurt each other through words and release joy in other through them also, also on ourselves. Can we quantify words, can we measure their impacts yet we can not deny their impacts. Materialistic philosophy can not release itself from quantification and the problem will continue until we understand the gifting language of our cosmos and abide by it. Forest abides itself by the laws of its creation, but the human is a conscious co-creator and has been given the free will to chose and here resides his up movement and down movement.

  4. dadaharm says :


    Belief systems are very difficult to change. One only sees what one expects to see. So how we perceive, construct or imagine our reality is also be difficult to change.

    One does not change one’s belief system without a reason. Moreover, our society uses propaganda very effectively. It ensures that people cannot even imagine to look critically at their belief system. Their belief system has become more or less closed.

    Having a closed mind ensures that one denies everything that does not fit in one’s belief system. So it can only change through a crisis. And it looks like that is what is going to happen.

  5. LittleBigMan says :

    An essay and a thing of utter beauty, meaning, and depth!

    “In Blake’s terms, then, all that we call “reality” is an intentional object, and everything in that reality is the manifestation of an intent — an intent which manifests either as placebo or nocebo characteristics.”

    This “reality” has been a focus of my thoughts as of late, since I wasn’t sure if I had understood it; especially in the context that Seth refers to it: “You create the reality you know.”

    Suppose I am an individual who hates striped green-yellow anything and for no apparent reason.

    Then, also suppose that a new neighbor moves into a house that is downhill from me and at an angle such that as I sit my living room, I can see his house from above and through my floor to ceiling windows.

    Moreover, six months later, my new neighbor paints his house in striped green-yellow color.

    Now, remember that I’m a psychopath when it comes to striped green-yellow paint, and I cannot – and will not – tolerate this house having now been painted striped green-yellow.

    So, I make it my life’s mission to make life miserable for my new neighbor. I break his windows at random occasions, sometimes when he is home and sometimes when he is sleeping at night; I give his car flat tires with my knife; I take a sledge hammer to his A/C unit on the outside; and so I keep damaging his property any which way I can.

    Now, suppose he proves resilient and he doesn’t leave the neighborhood. Now, I’m really losing my mind. So, I pay a visit to the most dangerous part of town and hire someone to get rid of this dude for me.

    Now, how did this poor fellow neighbor of mine create that reality for himself? What responsibility does he have in being on the receiving end of this wrath and sickness that I have brought onto him?

    So, I was thinking that Seth’s “You create the reality you know” must originate at the “intent” level before awareness manifests itself physically; that is, before the stage of physical birth.

    Only in that sense, “You create the reality you know” makes any sense at all, implying that my neighbor, at some level or plane of existence, and before birth, has allowed and purposefully weaved-in such a miserable reality for himself in that neighborhood that only his subconscious could interpret the real reasons for.

    Life seems to be a training camp to confront hostility. Then, “Happy birthday!” should perhaps be changed to “Happy hostilities!” 🙂

    Hopefully, we can access the placebo characteristics more often. 🙂

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