Saturday, April 24, 2010

Maybe it's more than chemistry

One psychiatrist comes to realize that the mind may have more to it than chemicals, and that therapy may usefully involve more than drugs. And writes about it in the NY Times.

Monday, April 5, 2010


Okay, let's see if I can resurface. Will begin with posts that offer links more than commentary, starting with this post from Wray Herbert's blog about the psychological dimension of eyesight. Among other things, the article cites research that shows that people who read eye charts that are reversed--smallest letters on top, contrary to expectation--can see smaller letters than when the charts are arranged in the usual way.

And then an important bigger-picture article in New Scientist about the body's central role in the thought process. You'd think this would be enough to send neuroscientists running for cover but I fear it will be decades before we more widely begin to acknowledge that relentless study of the brain is only going to get us so far towards understanding consciousness.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Bad science writing plus reductionism equals: arrggh!

Mechanism Behind Mind-Body Connection Discovered, says the headline.

Quite a headline, yes? Unfortunately, it is parked at the top of an article that comes nowhere near supporting the claim. To begin with, the writing is nearly incomprehensible. The article appears to be about a new study but never once tells us directly what the study is about or where it was done. The reader has to infer a lot, and the headline itself is never addressed.

After re-reading a few times, I think the basic gist is that there are these tiny structures on cells (called telomeres) that shorten as we age, and also shorten when we are under a lot of stress. Shortened telomeres have already been associated with a number of diseases, including, says the article, "HIV, osteoporosis, heart disease, and aging." (Hello? Aging is a "disease"?) It has also been known, previous to the new study, that an enzyme (telomerase) released in cells helps preserve telomere length.

The article then states, in the second paragraph:

"UCLA scientists found that the stress hormone cortisol suppresses immune cells' ability to activate their telomerase. This may explain why the cells of persons under chronic stress have shorter telomeres."

So it seems that the study being (barely) reported on proved this one thing: that cortisol, a stress hormone, suppresses the activation of telomerase in immune cells. From this new piece of information, researchers are suggesting that this may be why people under a lot of stress over a long period of time have shorter telomeres. Which in turn theoretically exposes them to the potential for any number of diseases.

Exactly how does this relate to the headline? Maybe here, in the third paragraph, sort of:

"The study reveals how stress makes people more susceptible to illness. The findings also suggest a potential drug target for preventing damage to the immune systems of persons who are under long-term stress [snip]."

Mind-body mechanism discovered? Geez. All that's happened is that research has yet again shown that our mental and/or emotional state physically affects our bodies. Which anyone who has ever blushed or who has ever felt butterflies in the stomach knows already.

The idea that shortened telomeres are somehow at the epicenter of the mind-body connection is laughable--western science reductionism at its finest (that is to say, worst). Okay, let's say that this is exactly right: that when we get stressed out over time, we lose the capacity to keep our telomeres long and this threatens our immune system.

Then what? Well, western scientists know exactly what to do with that--that's where the "potential drug target" comes in.

Rita Effros, apparently one of the UCLA researchers involved in this project (she's never identified directly as such), is quoted in the story.

"When the body is under stress, it boosts production of cortisol to support a 'fight or flight' response," explains Effros. "If the hormone remains elevated in the bloodstream for long periods of time, though, it wears down the immune system. We are testing therapeutic ways of enhancing telomerase levels to help the immune system ward off cortisol's effect. If we're successful, one day a pill may exist to strengthen the immune system's ability to weather chronic emotional stress."

So you see where this goes. We've discovered that stress can suppress the production of an enzyme that is required for good health, so we're going to develop a drug that will get the production going again.

How many things are just plain wrong with this world view?

How about working to educate and support people so that they can better deal with life circumstances that currently cause a lot of stress?

And how about recognizing that the material incarnation of an emotional state is not necessarily the baseline reality--may in fact never be the baseline reality? Scientists are themselves the ones who have come to realize and inform us that everything ultimately is energy. And yet in our bodies, energy does not exist to science.

Time and time again, western science presumes, and therefore seeks, a material cause for an energetic circumstance. That is, they identify a concrete, physical reality associated with an energetic state (stress, for instance), and then insist that this material reality (say, the suppression of the production of an enzyme) can be manipulated so that we "feel better" or get "healthier," without any awareness that the energetic state that created the physical symptom is itself the more powerful reality.

If we are under a great deal of stress over a long time, our bodies get damaged. If we continue to think that finding the key material circumstance associated with how damage to the body may occur is going to solve the great mystery of existence, and let us all live forever, we will continue to miss an opportunity to understand what human life is and has the potential to be. Western researchers who arrogantly ignore the body's energy system and seek some sort of Fountain of Youth in its chemistry are fooling themselves, and us, year after year.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Thomas Moore gets it

"I’m tempted to say that every illness is primarily a soul malady and only secondarily a physical problem. In sickness, the soul comes into the foreground. It asks for attention. If its wounds are addressed, then perhaps the physical manifestations will no longer be necessary. But care of the soul is not a surface activity; nor is it easy. It demands that you finally confront yourself and decide to live fully rather than halfheartedly. It asks that you learn to love with your whole heart and get over any self-pity or cynicism that may still remain in your heart. It asks that you transcend yourself in genuine concern for others and in a feeling of community that knows no boundaries. This is not an easy task, but it is the only way, finally, to health."
- Thomas Moore, Dark Nights of the Soul

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Dr. Robert Bazell on MSNBC

In "Mind-body medicine needs a check-up," posted today on MSNBC, Dr. Robert Bazell writes skeptically of the burgeoning field of alternative and complementary medicine. There is always plenty to be skeptical about, to be sure. Charlatans and quacks proliferate in the area of alternative medicine precisely because there is so little regulation and accepted certification. You can't simply say you're a medical doctor and begin practicing (well, you can, but you can be arrested for such things). In alternative medicine, you can do lots of things without any meaningful certification.

That said, Bazell is too high and mighty for his--or our--own good. While his language allows for the existence of creditable and helpful alternative medical practitioners, his arguments proceed as if they don't exist:

"As I have written before, many practitioners of alternative medicine either see no need for their claims to be tested with scientific studies, or simply ignore results if they don't like they way come out."

Ah, yes: "many"--not a very scientific assertion there, Dr. Bazell. This leaves the distinct possibility that "many" others do exactly the opposite and are actually helpful healers. But he can overlook that to imply, in a number of different ways, that the entire field is suspect precisely because traditional Western medical practice does not accept it.

As for ignoring results if they don't like the way they come out, alternative medical providers have not cornered the market on that particular attitude by any means. Western medical doctors likewise do this all the time--a fact that, I should note, routinely keeps alternative types of knowledge and understanding from getting anywhere in the traditional medical world. Take, for example, all the studies that have been done that show that back pain is by and large not dependent upon physical conditions. And then look at all the back pain clinics that are set up around the country, by good old accredited medical doctors, and tell me (or tell Dr. Bazell) that these doctors are not simply ignoring results that they don't like.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

More on The Cure Within

A little late with this one, but: the Chicago Tribune offered a quick overview of The Cure Within in late February, and a nice Anne Harrington interview. The headline alone displayed an unusual sensitivity to nuance for mainstream media coverage of the mind-body connection, however prosaically expressed: "The mind can heal or cripple the body." Ah! At last, a little less of either extreme that tends to dominate when mainstream publications write about this. Usually you get either breathlessness (see Parade: "Thoughts Can Heal Your Body") or sniping skepticism (see Slate: "The Psychosomatic Secret: The Unscientific Allure of Mind-Body Medicine").

The more thorough fact of the matter is that the mind and the body have an ongoing, complex sort of interaction. Your thoughts and emotions can either help you or hurt you, both psychologically and physiologically, and often unconsciously.

I am now by the way in the middle of reading The Cure Within myself. Although I'm having a hard time feeling warm and fuzzy about Harrington's distinctly postmodern organizational framework, the book is relentlessly interesting, informative, and, even, entertaining.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Conscious Entities

A site "devoted to short discussions of some of the major thinkers and theories about consciousness."

Friendly, informative, and fascinating, the site is enhanced by its uncluttered and amiable design. Anyone interested in mind-body interaction has ultimately to tackle the concept of consciousness, and this modest site is a great starting point.