Reading Steve Fleming’s review of Edward Bever’s new book on what we might call the physiology of witchcraft, I was struck by a potent cultural image. William James called the practice “medical materialism,” seeking to describe the desire to find scientific explanations for religious or spiritual phenomena. It’s a natural impulse–our culture often allows itself to be dominated by scientific, pseudo-scientific, and scientistic narratives, and they can provide significant authority to the speaker or writer (my brother called it “Test Tube Envy” in his first book of literary criticism). Bever’s apparent reliance on a narrative of “immune dysfunction” related to stress as an explanation for the effects of witchcraft (not terribly valid physiologically, though that makes the narrative no less powerful for many audiences) reminded me of a condition we see a few times a year. The Japanese call it “tako-tsubo,” or “octopus pot.” Over the last few decades physicians have noticed that occasional a person, often but not necessarily a woman, will arrive in the hospital looking as if she is having a massive heart attack. The heart barely beats, it may suddenly stop from an arrhythmia, and occasionally we need to use machines to support the circulation of blood. But there is no evidence of heart attack, and in most patients the disorder resolves over the course of a few days. Our best guess to the cause? An acute, severe rise in the levels of adrenalin (aka “catecholamines”) that cause most of the heart to lose its blood flow, generally caused by severe emotional stress. Though many American researchers (the nation that brought us “Freedom Fries”) have decided to use the term “catecholamine cardiomyopathy” in place of the Japanese name, there is a reasonable consensus that certain kinds of acute emotional stress actually can cause a person to drop dead.
This is a fascinating and satisfying disease to diagnose and treat–people generally recover well with the right therapy, and it allows one to wax philosophical and rhapsodic about the relationships between minds and bodies. My question today is what does it mean that there is probably (finally?) some reliable clinical evidence of the possible if rather rare occurrence of fatal emotional stress? In the nineteenth century everyone understood that an emotional shock could kill; in the twentieth century that was a folktale until maybe the last few decades.
 PS, the Japanese called it tako-tsubo because the heart (left ventricle) in this condition looks for all the world like one of the pots they use to catch octopus.
 PPS, this Sunday is the 20th anniversary of my theism. Expect a scheduled post for Fast Sunday.