Knowing What’s Good for You

Suppose you don’t feel well. You keep getting the flu. You can’t sleep. You’re anxious and irritable. Your gut is in turmoil. Nothing you do works, so you go to a doctor who prescribes some drugs. Or you go to a naturopath who prescribes some neurofeedback. Or you go to a homeopath who prescribes some remedies. Or you go to an acupuncturist who treats you and sends you home with some medicinal teas.

The important question for you is “Which one of these practitioners will make me feel better?” You, of course, choose one based on your sense of what will work. “Sense” has two meanings: one is rational sense, the other is emotional sense; what looks right and what feels right.

Beyond all that, how do you know that the treatment offered is the one most likely to restore your health?

The conventional view is that to know these things, you need to be statistically literate. In this view, the ability to weigh the relative risks and benefits is essential to reasoning about your health. This approach is illustrated in books such as Better Doctors, Better Patients, Better Decisions in which researchers argue that practitioners are as statistically illiterate as their patients. Doctors and patients alike need to be made comfortable and competent with the statistics upon which rational decisions are made.

This assumes, of course, that the pool of information is a sound basis for making a decision. The conventional view is that you should use only sources such as the Journal of American Medical Association and the New York Times. But you likely use information from sources such as the Orthomolecular News Service and GreenMedInfo.

While you use information sources outside the conventional corral, you also reason about, think through that information differently than the conventional experts insist you should. What they’re promoting is a standard that might be called cognitivist or rationalist or utilitarian—it is a process that calculates. You do that kind of thinking, of course, but that’s not the only kind of thinking you do. You also do emotional thinking.

Going to an MD might calculate right, but it might not feel right. Or the other way round. The calculation for taking that antidepressant or antipsychotic or antibiotic (whether pharmaceutical or natural) might make one kind of sense to your utilitarian brain, but not to your emotional brain.

That’s because you have two modes of reasoning that occur in two separate parts of your brain. It confirms what you experience. It’s reasoning cool and hot. It’s how you make sense of things: one disembodied (the numbers) and one embodied (feelings). These processes balance one another.

So while the information piles up for your utilitarian brain to calculate what’s best, your emotional brain chews on other kinds of information—for example, your gut feeling. The point here isn’t to always trust your gut. The point is to pay attention to it. As it turns out, you do it all the time. But you’ve been subject to a good deal of propaganda and bullying that the utilitarian calculation is the only one that counts.

It might help to ask, “Where does all this emotional information come from?” We have all these professional journals and expert opinions and other sanctioned sources for utilitarian calculations. What supports emotional thinking?

Your own experience, as your body understands it. That’s why it’s called your sense of things. That’s why it’s called “making sense.” That’s why we have gut feelings.

But just as the officially sanctioned data sources are not always reliable, your gut feelings are not always reliable. I’ll give you an example.

Some neuroscientists studying better ways to identify effective anti-smoking campaigns discovered a way to accurately predict the effect of advertising on a large population. They showed three TV ads to 31 people. The strength with which a specific part of each person’s brain lit up accurately predicted how successful a TV ad would be in getting people to quit smoking. The news report’s title was “Your Brain Knows Which Ads Are Winners, Better Than You Do: Study On Smokers’ Brains May Mark Dawn of New Age in Advertising.”

OK, so advertising doesn’t affect you. Do movies? One study shows a strong relationship between smoking in movies and adolescents who start the habit. Movies are storytelling. Advertising, at least for the last 50 years, is storytelling. Branding is all about telling a story that makes you want to be a part of it. And that’s older than Aristotle’s Poetics.

OK, so you don’t smoke. Do you use a cell phone? What story is that part of?

And by the way, those symptoms I listed at the beginning? They’re common to people who are electrosensitive. An effective treatment is to unplug the SmartPhone and SmartMeter and wireless router and PDA and cordless phone and dirty electricity and other sources of electrosmog. That trick is not in the bag of most health practitioners because, just like you, they have stories of their own to deal with.