Sep 24, 2016 | By

Busting Science Myths — Treating Colds and Fevers — Treating Schizophrenia


I’m a big believer in science and the significant benefits it has brought to human civilization. However, I’m also a skeptic when it comes to the “science knows all” attitude that has been so prevalent in modern culture. Ancient cultures and practices have great wisdom to share, as well. We should be willing to question the conventional modern “scientific” mythologies — and be open to the possibility of finding truth in ancient wisdom.


Take for example, the old wives’ tale that one should “feed a cold and starve a fever.”   According to modern medicine, this maxim is nothing but groundless superstition. As recently as 2014, an article in Scientific American stated, “medical science says the old saw is wrong.” However, very recent studies on mice have decisively confirmed the claims experimentally. The experiments fed mice infected with bacteria and with viruses either saline or food. The effects were powerful — in the group of mice infected with a bacterium, half survived if fed only saline, but all died if fed food — in the group of mice infected with a virus, 90% died on the saline and 78% survived when fed. While the precise mechanism is not yet understood, it seems to be related to the influence of glucose availability in the cells. The glucose seems to bolster the ability of cells to fight viruses (hence – feed a cold), but emboldens bacteria (hence – starve a fever).   There have been no studies on humans yet, but, in the meantime, it might be prudent to follow grandma’s advice.

A more unsettling example of science mythology seems to be emerging in the field of mental health.   A recent article in AEON by a practicing psychotherapist points to the predominant modernist view that psychotic experience is a brain disorder to be treated with drugs. His own practice (he is in his ‘70’s) suggested a more nuanced view – that psychotic experience including voices and visions may be “a meaningful response to the condition of one’s life.” He was taught that an acute psychotic break (as opposed to chronic psychosis) was often self-limiting and would last no more than a year – without drugs.

Drug therapy does often have immediate benefits – “When patients are given powerful brain-altering medication, their symptoms usually go away quickly.” However, it is often the case that “When meds are withdrawn, the symptoms come back. This tends to happen repeatedly.” In his view, this reinforces the mythology that the illness is a brain disorder, and may ultimately be detrimental to the patient by short-circuiting the possibility for a long-term cure by institutionalizing the drug dependency.   He concludes: “We could be unwittingly turning an acute and generally time-limited condition into a chronic disability.” As he points out, Robert Whitaker’s analysis of psychiatric drugs and mental illness in America (Anatomy of an Epidemic, 2010), suggests that “your odds of complete, treatment-free recovery are much, much better if you are treated in a third-world country.”

While we need to be careful about drawing hard conclusions from this limited and admittedly provocative perspective, it certainly encourages us, as consumers and interested citizens, to ask questions about medical mythologies and to be open to alternatives. Indeed, those alternatives may even be grounded in ancient cultural practice — a recent article in Nautilus explores a possible link between the mental illness of schizophrenia, and the cultural institution of shamanism.

The article tells the heart-wrenching story of a young man’s affliction with schizophrenia. In summary: “Dick and his son (Frank) tried a variety of treatments over 15 years, some more effective than others. Then, unexpectedly, the pair turned in a very different direction, beginning a journey that Dick now likens to a “torch-lit passageway through a long dark tunnel.” By sharing his story, he hopes to help others find this passageway—but he’s aware some of it sounds crazy. For instance: He now believes Frank might be a shaman.” But the author also backs up these speculations with the latest findings in neuroscience and theory of mind.

Brain research suggests that the temporoparietal junction (TPJ) plays a key role in pulling information together “into a mental representation of one’s physical body, and its place in space and time” and “theory of mind, the ability to recognize your thoughts and desires as your own and to understand that other people have mental states that are separate from yours.” Schizophrenia is characterized by disorder in the theory of mind, described by one researcher as an “untethering of ego,” an experience that can be “cripplingly expansive: They believe they are many people at once, and see motive and meaning everywhere.”

While the condition can be debilitating, it can also be exhilarating. Schizophrenics can be, and can feel, extraordinarily creative and imaginative. In some cultures, these traits have been highly valued, and the visionary experience is at the heart of shamanic traditions that have existed in most pre-industrial cultures. Some of those cultures still exist today — and Frank’s exposure to a shamanic teacher has been integral to his narrative and the trajectory of his relationship with schizophrenia. This article offers the hope that we can learn from other cultures and do a much better job in treating and integrating those who see the world differently.

Frank’s story also caused me to wonder — is it possible that having a small population of individuals with Schizophrenia provides evolutionary benefits to human communities? Curiously, the occurrence of schizophrenia seems remarkably stable across different human populations – suggesting that there is a common biological basis built into the human genome. Perhaps the loosening of ego boundaries and the intense creativity of schizophrenics (qualities that form the basis of shamanic traditions in) have, in small quantities, been highly valuable in encouraging change, innovation, resilience and perhaps building bonding and bridging social capital among communities, leading to an evolutionary advantage to those communities. If this is the case, then it clearly behooves us to make better use of such evolutionary treasures.

The lesson from all of these stories – let’s continue to question the conventional modern “scientific” mythologies and be open to the possibility of finding truth in ancient wisdom.

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