Thursday, December 29, 2005

Complexity and Memetic Illness

Michael Chrichton gave a lecture last month entitled Fear, Complexity, Environmental Management in the 21st Century. He mostly decries the concept that the world is linear rather than complex. The illusion that the world is linearly predictable has given rise to many doomsaying predictions over the years.

The part of the lecture that I want to look at describes the impact on people's health that dire predictions can cause. From UN data regarding the Chenobyl disaster:
But most troubling of all, according to the UN report in 2005, is that "the largest public health problem created by the accident" is the "damaging psychological impact [due] to a lack of accurate information…[manifesting] as negative self-assessments of health, belief in a shortened life expectancy, lack of initiative, and dependency on assistance from the state."

In other words, the greatest damage to the people of Chernobyl was caused by bad information. These people weren’t blighted by radiation so much as by terrifying but false information. We ought to ponder, for a minute, exactly what that implies. We demand strict controls on radiation because it is such a health hazard. But Chernobyl suggests that false information can be a health hazard as damaging as radiation. I am not saying radiation is not a threat. I am not saying Chernobyl was not a genuinely serious event.

Chrichton draws a parallel, potentially identical, mechanism with ancient beliefs in curses:
In fact, we need to recognize that this kind of human response is well-documented. Authoritatively telling people they are going to die can in itself be fatal.

You may know that Australian aborigines fear a curse called “pointing the bone.” A shaman shakes a bone at a person, and sings a song, and soon after, the person dies. This is a specific example of a phenomenon generally referred to as “hex death”—a person is cursed by an authority figure, and then dies. According to medical studies, the person generally dies of dehydration, implying they just give up. But the progression is very erratic, and shock symptoms may play a part, suggesting adrenal effects of fright and hopelessness.

Yet this deadly curse is nothing but information. And it can be undone with information.

A person's mind and body are far from distinct. They share a deep system of positive and negative feedback systems. Doctors tell of patients who just give up and die, while others never seem to give up. It is as if the mind provides the thumb to the scales, or sometimes even a fist to one of the plates. What I find interesting is the idea that the mind can be a pathway for ideas to alter body function. Maybe the holistic medicine movement may be on to something in theory. Get some rigor in the process, and we may start to see real effects.

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