This is a slightly modified version of an article that first appeared in Nexus magazine and the accompanying text to my contribution at the “Long Night of Masks”, the MWGFD Mask Symposium.
Face masks are nocebos
Face masks are extremely powerful, ubiquitous nocebos. Nocebos are psychological stimuli that cause harm via psychological, neurological or immunological processes.
Face masks, in fact, trigger fear. This is because their presence is coupled with the message: “A powerful killer virus threatens us always and everywhere! We must all protect ourselves!” This message is a message of fear. For the very first public-media response to the pandemic was to spread fear . Once fear is firmly installed, it is very quickly evoked again and again. The face masks are a visible symbol of the pandemic and psychologically conditioned stimuli that induce fear. And they do so extremely quickly and without our being able to resist them – because the emotional evaluation of sensory stimuli always occurs temporally before the conscious semantic analysis. This is because all sensory channels have an anatomically direct pathway to the amygdalae (sing. Amygdala), the small paired brain centres in the diencephalon responsible for threat evaluation. When “threat” is registered there, the entire mental apparatus is primed to perceive, act and explore behavioural alternatives accordingly. Worse still, involuntary physiology, autonomic processes such as blood pressure regulation, heartbeat and immune modulation, is also affected accordingly.
How quickly and unconsciously this can happen is shown to us by a now famous psychological experiment conducted some years ago: