What we know today as western medicine began to dramatically diverge from the rest of the world’s healing traditions about three centuries ago. The main changes did not start within the existing traditions themselves, though, they began as a response to modern science as it began to take its present form. The “naturalistic philosophers” of that era were in the process of developing a new, more sophisticated way to understand the physical world and were struggling with separating their ideas from the religious dogma and superstitious beliefs dominant at that point in time. The ideas of these earliest scientists were the first tentative steps toward a radically different view of the world that reached its clearest articulation as the scientific worldview that was almost universally accepted at about the end of the nineteenth century.
As this trend became firmly established, scientists had come to believe in a strictly materialistic, physical basis for everything that human beings experience. Nothing was considered to be real except physical particles and forces, and all of the complexity of the universe was seen as completely reducible to the interaction of the incredibly small building blocks of atoms and subatomic particles. These scientists believed that if they could understand precisely how these building blocks interacted, they would then have the key to understanding everything. As is evident all around us today, this analytical approach to the physical world has been fantastically successful and is directly responsible for our many awesome technological advances.
Western medicine has taken the form we find it in today in the wake of the success of this materialistic and reductionist conceptualization of our world. Following this new emphasis, theories of healing in the western world began to markedly diverge from the healing traditions of previous millennia. While these ancient traditions held that thought, prayer and incantations manifested the most important healing power, by the late nineteenth century, they were viewed as almost totally impotent. The human mind came to be viewed as just our private experience of the electrical processes going on within our brain, and the sole means our mind possessed of bringing about change in the world was through controlling the musculature of the body which directed the body’s actions.
It is almost certainly true that this rejection of the importance our thoughts and of our mind’s actions (except in its role of guiding our physical actions) was absolutely essential to the advances we have seen in our sciences, our technology and medicine. To advance this quickly, it was essential to find some effective way to escape the superstition and mistaken beliefs of earlier times. In the evolution of modern medicine, our rejection of the importance of the non-physical actions of the human mind has greatly accelerated our technological advances and produced our current repertoire of diagnostic equipment, surgical technique and medications.
While this materialistic, scientific path we have taken has been incredibly valuable, its usefulness to us as an engine of medical advances is now becoming limiting rather than continuing to foster the rapid advances of past centuries. As we continue an almost exclusive focus on physical factors in our approach to medical research and theory, we are now reaching a point of diminishing returns for our investments. But I would argue that the financial investment itself is far from the most important. It the investment of a larger portion of our intellectual resources in new and more effective approaches to our health problems that is needed now.
To make this point more clear, consider that the US spends significantly more income per capita on healthcare than any other country. If these monetary investments reliably translated into better health, you would naturally expect the US to rank number one in the world in health indicators. Unfortunately, when you look at these indicators, you find we are not number one, in fact, in some indicators we are well down the list. We are not getting the return on our expenditures that one might expect. The crux of the problem that lies behind these statistics is the diminishing returns we are now getting for our investments in medical technology. But, this is not just an American problem; it is a problem of every system that follows this modern scientific healthcare model.
As I mentioned earlier, centuries ago the brilliant minds that created modern western medicine faced a sort of fork in the road as they chose to pursue a totally physical focus and to reject any non-physical role of the human mind as they developed their medical theories. We have now almost fully consolidated the gains from this choice. The question I now ask is can we change our direction? My argument is that there is much to be gained from revisiting that historic decision and to begin to enthusiastically explore the alternative path. This would not mean giving up anything we have gained. Nor would it not mean stopping research designed to further develop physical healing technologies. It would mean putting more emphasis and investment on very promising research areas that are now almost totally neglected.
I believe that we are actually already in the process of making this change in focus, but the progress of re-directing our efforts has been cumbersome and very slow. The next article I will post will contain the real value of all the analysis so far: what we can do to accelerate this change and reap the benefits much sooner. It will be titled: American healthcare in crisis. Part 4: Possible solutions: revisiting the power of the human mind in healing. I am excited to be placing these ideas before you. I hope you will continue with me on this journey.
This will likely be the last of this series, but it will not be the end of what I have to say on these topics. This is just a brief introductory series to a topic that is of great importance to us in our future healthcare decisions.