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Down the Rabbit Hole
Paul Kiritsis, PsyD candidate, DPhil., MA (Psychology), MA (History)

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Consciousness, Illness, and Belief: An Introduction to Phenomenology

Paul Kiritsis - Wednesday, March 26, 2014

One of the greatest lessons in life was conveyed to me in my youth by my maternal grandmother Despina. As an annual participant of the fire-walking ritual of the Anastenaria in northern Greece, she would frequently reiterate, time and time again, that the element of fire was virtually powerless against the sheer resolution and discipline of the human mind. It was possible to march across searing coals without acquiring as much as a damaged hair follicle if your belief remained robust and unyielding. The only time the material self was left susceptible to the possibility of severe burns and subsequent trips to the emergency department of the regional hospital was when trust and confidence in the process faltered. The same message is often conveyed by the unconscious with its bias for symbology and personification when we plumb the yawning depths of dream consciousness. When left-hemispheric scepticism remains suspended like a hot air balloon, the dreaming body can fly, perambulate about our old homes upside-down, shape shift like the sea god Proteus, and engage in some of the most inventive endeavours. In this lucid world of endless feasibilities, we become the same gods and goddesses which our ancient ancestors envisioned amidst the stars and galaxies of the heavens. We are invincible, at least until the critical self intercedes and ruins the aesthetic kaleidoscope by positing that in the space-time continuum such feats are impossible. Then, within a split microsecond, the dreamscape becomes infected with pessimism and doubt; feasibilities that were hitherto utterly natural and unquestioned recede and dissipate into oblivion, leaving the lucid dreamer to question her own sanity. Herein the unconscious mind is unveiling one of the most important life messages, free of charge!

The natural healing process is an overly intricate affair, involving underlying mechanisms of action and variables medical science has not yet scrutinized to any comprehensive degree. We know, for instance, that healing is impacted by the alchemy between doctor and patient, the religious and spiritual convictions of both doctor and patient, the conscious or unconscious suggestions and autosuggestions that occur as a consequence of such, the diagnosis and nature of the prognosis, psychological factors like stress, social factors like job security and financial stability, and physical factors like diet. What we find on so many occasions is that coupling pharmacological, surgical, psychotherapeutic, or any other kind of medical intervention with optimism and positive thinking aids and augments the healing agency, sometimes to an unprecedented degree.

How this occurs is a phenomenon about as awe-inspiring and miraculous as Moses’s reception of the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai. Cells, the basic building blocks of life, possess a rudimentary consciousness allowing them to respond to environmental signals that may be electromagnetic or chemical in nature. Responses are enabled by a functional system of receptor and effector proteins within the cell membrane known as Integral Membrane Proteins (IMPs); the first type are akin to physical senses and carefully monitor the internal and external milieus whilst the second mobilize behavioural responses associated with cell functioning, the regulation of cell shape and motility, the synthesis of molecules, and gene activation. We could call receptor-effector proteins the brains or intellectual centre of the cell because they align all possible behavioural responses with self-preservation and opportunism, two qualities inherent in more complex organisms. In his empirical study of cloned endothelial cells renowned stem cell biologist Bruce Lipton demonstrated this rudimentary intelligence through his empirical study of cloned endothelial cells[1]; through two types of histamine receptor proteins on these cells, a H1 and a H2 switch, it was deduced that activation of H1 was synonymous was a preliminary caveat warning the cell to gravitate away from an environment deemed noxious whereas activation of H2 communicated knowledge of a nutrient-rich humus nearby, a patent call for the opening of its ion channels.

Serving as the crisis response modulation signal for the entire human body, the hormone adrenalin is also modulated by two information-processing receptors, an alpha and a beta, omnipresent in the cell taxonomies. When an efflux of adrenalin from the Central Nervous System (CNS) involves the activation of IMPs allied with an adrenal alpha receptor, cells express behaviours intending to defend and preserve from environmental adversity. On the other hand the activation of IMPs coupled with beta-receptors inspires growth responses, movement and receptivity towards the environmental stimulus.[2] In an unexpected discovery that authenticates the truth of mind-matter synergy at the cellular level, Lipton found that cells immersed in adrenaline and histamine would yield solely to the influence of the former, meaning that signals originating from the CNS supersede all others from regional variants.[3] In the battle between histamine and adrenaline, it’s the one ontologically nearer to the conscious and unconscious mind that prevails. Adhering to this coherent hierarchy of top-down causation, we could decree that emotional intelligence and perception affect health by altering the somatic bioenergy fields that modulate cell physiology via the CNS so that gene expression favours or inhibits the renewal of warn-out proteins which in turn either optimizes, suppresses, or depresses immunological functioning. Naturally the direction is controlled by the nature of the charges; sanguine and positive emotions will stimulate enhancements in health and healing whereas fatalistic and negative ones may play an influential albeit dreaded role in the progression of illness, the formation of tumours, and even death.

You’d think that in a medical world still suffering from a phenomenological myopia imposed by Cartesian dualism in the post-Reformation era, the entanglement of non-localized conscious awareness, what we nowadays call mind, and the biochemical operations of the human body would have regressed to religious and philosophical inquest, to books about the occult and esoteric roots of science. For reasons partly to do with intellectual bias and partly with the greedy ambitions of capitalism, medical students of this train of thought are taught to regard mind and anything remotely connected to it (i.e. perceptions and beliefs) with the utmost suspicion, as if it were a historical fiction illicitly vouching for an iota of credibility in the more illustrious non-fiction book category. Even so there comes a time when they realize that the empirical validity of mind over matter has indeed been acknowledged by traditional medicine–as the placebo effect. Derived from the Latin for, “I shall please”, placebo refers to the quantifiable effect of perception and belief on the healing process. At some point scientists realized that the placebo was a complex psychological factor able to influence therapeutic outcomes, and so they inducted it into experimental research methods as a control, usually an inactive substance taken in sugar pill form, hoping that in doing so these nuisance factors would be weeded out, and further, that the true therapeutic value of the particular medicine or drug being tested would be clearly determined.

I am unreserved in my sentiments when it comes to condemning the traditional bias against this form of self-help and self-healing. For most clinicians and doctors, many of the benefits ascribed to the placebo are merely erroneous diagnoses or diagnostic errors and people who make such claims are pathological, suggestible, fraudulent, or of dishonourable character. At the end of the day they will attempt to explain it away as anything save for the miraculous phenomenon that it is! I guess it’s the only way that they can continue viewing the cosmos with the myopic lenses of Newtonian materialism and entertaining the illusion that they’re ‘doing no harm’. The informed amongst us know that the credible science of quantum mechanics has long overturned the premises of materialism and reductionism and that drugs are culprits responsible for a wide continuum of adverse side effects. Clinicians are human too, and whether we want to admit it or not one of the greatest liabilities of being human is our unconscious propensity to define reality within the context of our own seminal perceptions and biases and then cling to them with staunch, rigid fanaticism and a misplaced sense of pride. A lifetime of looking through such rose-tinted glasses makes other equally valid (if not more valid) realities extremely difficult, if not impossible, to see.

One particular reality deemed something of an embarrassment to the rose-tinted materialism pandered to by conventional medicine are the superlative successes of the placebo effect. It has been shown via healing studies employing double and triple-blind protocols that participants duped into believing that they’re receiving genuine medical intervention show marked improvements in health, sometimes as much if not more than the group receiving the actual treatment It has also been shown that placebo capabilities extend to both the psychological and organic dimensions, adding weight to the holistic adage that mind and body are not mutually exclusive functions. Placebos in their most orthodox form as water-based sugar pills trump psychotropic drugs when it comes to coupling beneficial psychosomatic interactions with the enduring Hippocratic perspective of ‘do no harm’; they’re efficient, energy-based, environmentally friendly, free of detrimental side effects, and most imperative of all, they’re absolutely free. Now here’s a treatment worth all its weight in gold!    

Delving into the phenomenology of anomalous healing methods, investigator Sybo Schouten found that placebo played the role of a powerful intercessor in alleviating a whole gamut of conditions from headaches, depression, pain, and seasickness to digestive problems, hypertension, insomnia, and asthma.[4] Generally speaking the percentages of success tended to be higher when placebos were being used as controls for psychotropic drugs and lower when they were utilized as controls for organic diseases whose causative agents are little understood (i.e. epilepsy), an observation most suggestive of a likely correlation between the degree and effectiveness of one’s perceptual influence on a medical condition and the severity and complexity of the underlying neurological damage. Conceding that a causal limitation for mental power and perception exists is obviously necessary for the reason that there are a great many occasions described by clinicians in the anecdotal literature where positive reprogramming and affirmations have not aided the patient in his or her recovery.

With limited research into this phenomenon we cannot be sure if the complete absence of any effect might be due to unconscious stressors such as the treating physicians’ expectations or elements of personal nonbelief and doubt, however what we can be sure of is that once the body accrues an indefinite number of damages the threshold for which nonlocal thoughts can impact biochemistry is surmounted, allowing a terminal decoupling of consciousness and matter. You might imagine the latter as a kind of unconscious fatalism, a negative will to die, or a dreadful pointer that the presiding life force can no longer subsist in such a feeble, decrepit state and is ready to depart. Any negative side effects wrought by an emotional intelligence gone awry is called the nocebo effect, and according to Schouten it appears in roughly 19 percent of 109 double-blind experimental trials.[5] This is much more than what is commonly supposed. I, myself, have been a victim of the nocebo, and no statistical, mathematical or quantifiable effects of the detached scientific observer comes anywhere close to conveying the phenomenology of just how soul-shattering it can be.  


 


 

[1] Bruce Lipton, The Biology of Belief: Unleashing the Power of Consciousness, Matter & Miracles (New York City, NY: Hay House, Inc, 2008), pp. 106.

[2] Ibid, pp. 106.

[3] Ibid, pp. 106.

[4] Pamela Rae Health, Mind-Matter Interaction: A Review of Historical Reports, Theory and Research (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 2011), pp. 108.

[5] Ibid, pp. 108.

 

 

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