Modern living can have it’s drawbacks as well as it’s advantages, nobody died in plane crashes 500 years ago. Some of the disadvantages come as a direct result of our increase in scientific and technological knowledge, there would be no antibiotic resistant bacteria without antibiotics. Some people worry about ever more subtle forms of danger in the modern world, there are those who classify themselves as “Electrosensitive”. Electrosensitives consider the electromagnetic fields produced by electronic products such as computers, cell phones, T.V.s, well almost everything these days, to be harmful in general and to affect them in particular in a variety of ways. Symptoms may include but not be limited to: headache, fatigue, tinnitus, dizziness, memory deficits and irregular heart beat, in fact there are lists including over thirty symptoms ranging from asthma to epilepsy and Alzheimer’s.

Earlier this year researchers at the University of Regensburg conducted a study of self identified electrosensitive sufferers comparing their reactions to non-sufferers when exposed to a heat-emitting thermode and a cell phone. The sufferers experienced discomfort from both stimuli where as non-sufferers only experienced discomfort from the thermode. This was backed up by brain scans of the subjects which indicated that the pain experienced was real. Unfortunately the phone used in the experiment was fake, there were no electromagnetic fields being produced. The sufferers were not making up the pain they felt, it was real to them, but in the same way that a placebo treatment can (allegedly*) make people feel better it appears that the anticipation of pain by the sufferers lead them to feel it, in a sort of nocebo response to the sham phone.

It seems that while these electrosensitive people are not merely attention seeking, as the discomfort they feel is undoubtedly real, neither are they suffering from a disability brought on by exposure to fields that are generally considered harmless. What’s going on here? I have no idea but I’ll be interested to see how further research sheds light on this.


* It’s complicated, it could be that what we refer to as a placebo response doesn’t actually exist and is really a mislabelling of other factors that have nothing to do with response to treatment. Who knows.

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