In an earlier post, asking for targets for me to scrutinize, Yakaru suggested I look over Bruce Lipton. I was a bit slow in jumping into the topic, so Yakaru made a post of his own.
I’ll still make my contribution, and skimming over Lipton’s website, I’m drawn to a book excerpt he posted: “The Nature of Dis-ease.” The title alone is an ideological red flag. I’ve seen a lot of altie gurus use it in the past, trying for some kind of clever wordplay. I tend to see another aspect to this word splitting: I think it promotes the idea that health is the default state of being. It’s a meme that’s going to need more and more critical scrutiny because as medicine advanced, we’ve been able to lead healthier lives. It’s because of modern science-based medicine and our society’s infrastructure that we generally take health for granted and see disease as an aberration instead of an integral part of life.
Onto the article itself:
Sometimes, the body’s natural harmony breaks down, and we experience dis-ease, which is a reflection of the body’s inability to maintain normal control of its function-providing systems. Because behavior is created through the interaction of proteins with their complementary signals, there are really only two sources of dis-ease: either the proteins are defective or the signals are distorted.
Already, we’ve got a rather extraordinary claim, narrowing disease to two fundamental causes. At least that’s better than many altie claims that narrow it down to a single cause. What about infectious diseases? What about congenital defects? What about malnutrition? I know I’m a layman when it comes to biochemistry, but this sort of grand claim should raise red flags, no matter the qualifications of the speaker. Humans are extremely complex structures, and I would expect that to mean there are many things that could go wrong. If you’re going to claim that all disease boils down to those two causes, you’re going to need a darn good explanation for how other known disease-causing factors feed into that.
About 5 percent of the world’s population is born with birth defects, which means they have mutated genes that code for dysfunctional proteins. Structurally deformed or defective proteins can “jam the machine,” disturb normal pathway functions, and impair the character and quality of lives. However, 95 percent of the human population arrives on this planet with a perfectly functional set of gene blueprints.
This goes against everything I’ve learned about evo-devo. Some defects are attributable to deleterious mutations. Many are not. If you’ve seen a newspaper article talking about a local farm animal with two heads or an additional pair of legs, you’ve probably been subjected to misinformation. Those types of defects aren’t caused by genetic mutations, but due to other types of congenital errors. Of course, there are other forms of non-genetic causes for defects, like alcohol and other drugs.
Because the majority of us have a perfectly healthy genome and produce functional proteins, illness in this group can likely be attributed to the nature of the signal. There are three primary situations in which signals contribute to dysfunction and dis-ease.
The first is trauma. If you twist or misalign your spine and physically impede the transmission of the nervous system’s signals, it may result in a distortion of the information being exchanged between the brain and the body’s cells, tissues, and organs.
Here comes the chiropractic. Or something quite similar. To me, this sounds like equivocation. When you’re talking about proteins, the signaling that comes to mind is about the interactions between DNA, RNA, and proteins. The “standard” interaction is that a segment of DNA gets “unzipped” in a process that produces an equivalent RNA sequence, which is then used by the cell to produce a protein. The more interesting interactions are typically the ones that have some chemical “signal” alter how and when the process is done.
Your nervous system’s signals are a bit different. Connected neurons relay electrical and chemical signals down to some endpoint in your body. While this feeds into cell behavior, like telling certain muscle cells to contract, I doubt it acts as some kind of universal regulator for every cell or every activity. If it did control everything, I’d expect paraplegics’ legs to outright die instead of just becoming paralyzed. Given my experience with chiropractic woos and other alties, I think I can be suspicious that Lipton might be suggesting something like that profound control.
The second is toxicity. Toxins and poisons in our system represent inappropriate chemistry that can distort the signal’s information on its path between the nervous system and the targeted cells and tissues. Altered signals, derived from either of these causes, can inhibit or modify normal behaviors and lead to the expression of dis-ease.
And another red flag is thrown up. While I’m sure there are toxins that do harm by interfering with chemical signals, the vagueness of generally referring to “toxins” instead of giving a specific example tells me that he’s engaging in boilerplate quackery. Toxicology isn’t as simple as typical alties make it out to be. Different chemicals have different effects in different doses and different contexts. I have a feeling Lipton won’t be elaborating much on that, but will take the black-and-white altie model of toxicology, that some chemicals are always bad.
The third and most important influence of signals on the dis-ease process is thought, the action of the mind. Mind-related illnesses do not require that there be anything physically wrong with the body at the outset of the dis-ease. Health is predicated upon the nervous system’s ability to accurately perceive environmental information and selectively engage appropriate, life-sustaining behaviors. If a mind misinterprets environmental signals and generates an inappropriate response, survival is threatened because the body’s behaviors become out of synch with the environment. We may not think that a thought could be enough to undermine an entire system, but, in fact, misperceptions can be lethal.
And I ready myself to go down the rabbit hole. This is getting into the dangerous territory of “positive thinking,” the idea that you can think your way to health.
Consider the situation of a person with anorexia. While relatives and friends clearly perceive that this skin-and-bones individual is near death, the anorexic looks in a mirror and sees a fat person. Using this distorted view, that resembles an image in a funhouse mirror, the anorexic’s brain attempts to control a misperceived runaway weight gain, by-oops!-inhibiting the system’s metabolic functions.
The brain, like any governing entity, seeks harmony. Neural harmony is expressed as a measure of congruency between the mind’s perceptions and the life we experience.
This strikes me as a contradiction to his earlier claim that disease is caused by defective proteins and chemical signalling. As for inhibiting metabolism, I would think that the metabolism is inhibited by malnourishment from starving oneself, not directly by the nervous system. If the perceived fatness triggered a change, I would think it would raise metabolism to burn off the alleged fat or encourage the person to engage in high activity to burn off excess energy. Of course, obesity isn’t a classical problem with humanity. We didn’t evolve with any expectation of being obese, but in expectation of famine, so I don’t find it surprising that we lack an innate inclination to burn off weight, just socially enforced ones.
It’s my understanding that it’s social forces behind anorexia by giving people, especially women, unrealistic expectations for body shape and basing a person’s social value on appearance. She perceives a strong social pressure to be thin, so she starves herself until she is thin. Possibly, if she doesn’t find the acceptance she thought she’d receive, she might rationalize that failure as still not being thin enough, so she continues to starve herself. It can become a vicious cycle if people end up avoiding her because she appears sick and she misinterprets that avoidance as resulting from still not being thin enough. I don’t know if it’s true, but I would expect people who follow celebrities and fashion culture to be more vulnerable to anorexia and other eating disorders because they’re more likely to see people on extreme diets or tweaked unrealistically by digital editing being held up as role models. Accordingly, I would expect people who aren’t into fashion or celebrities to have a much lower incidence of anorexia.
An interesting insight into how the mind creates harmony between its perceptions and the real world is frequently illustrated in stage hypnosis shows. A volunteer from the audience is invited onstage, hypnotized, and asked to pick up a glass of water, which the volunteer is told weighs one thousand pounds. With that misinformation, the volunteer struggles unsuccessfully with straining muscles, bulging veins, and perspiration. How can that be? Obviously the glass doesn’t weigh one thousand pounds even though the mind of the subject firmly believes that it does.
Hypnotism is a funky topic, and it’s nothing like the kind you see in cartoons. If you don’t believe in the power of hypnotism, you can’t be hypnotized. It’s quite similar to many religious experiences where people will react a certain way because there’s an overriding social pressure to react that way. If a person is expected to fall over from the priest or guru’s spiritual pressure, they will do so under their own power because it’s expected for them to fall. They will even internally rationalize away their own agency and distort their own memories and perception of cause and effect. As for the hypnosis subject lifting the thousand pound glass, I think that they would tense up their muscles because they’re expected to play along with the act. They’ll tense up in a way other than that of lifting a weight in order to construct the socially accepted narrative that the glass is heavy or pretend that he’s been controlled into believing the glass is heavy. He’d have to strain to try to lift it, but if he actually put that effort into a lifting action, he’d hurl the glass upward instead of failing as he would be expected to. Bear in mind that the example Lipton illustrates sounds very much like an act that would be done on stage, where people are expected to put on an act. Hypnotism on stage can be an effective way for people to rationalize away their inhibitions because society gives them a pass for allegedly not being in control of their actions.
What I’m seeing so far from Lipton so far is a complete misunderstanding of what’s going on with social phenomena and trying to interpret resulting physiological events in more profound terms than necessary. Peer pressure is a known motivator for all sorts of extreme behavior. A hypnotized person strains his muscles because he thinks he’s expected to put on a show. An anorexic woman starves herself because she thinks she has to be extraordinarily thin in order to be accepted by society. The hypnotized subject strains his muscles specifically to avoid producing work because that’s how he chooses to play along with the audience’s expectations. The anorexic’s metabolism drops because her body is responding to the physical lack of nourishment caused by self-starvation.
To manifest the perceived reality of a thousand pound glass of water, something that cannot be lifted, the hypnotized subject’s mind fires a signal to the muscles used to lift the glass at the same time it fires contradictory signals to the muscles used to set the glass down! This results in an isometric exercise wherein two groups of muscles work to oppose each other, which results in no net movement-but a lot of strain and sweat.
At least he reasons that much. Of course, he still misunderstands how the perception is working. The subject doesn’t perceive the glass to weigh a thousand pounds. He perceives that the audience expects him to act as if he perceives it as heavy. The audience also expects him to act as if he believes his perceptions were altered, so he alters his memory of the experience under social pressure to convince himself the group’s narrative is correct. Humans are social creatures and thus are often reluctant to defy social expectations.
If he actually perceived the glass as weighing a thousand pounds, he’d hurl the glass upward when he attempted to lift it. It’s like when I lift a container in the fridge: I evaluate its likely weight based on the visible amount of liquid in it. If the container is opaque and mostly empty, sometimes I’ll overestimate the amount and bump it into the rack above before I can make a correction. The major difference I see is the social context, not the perception of weight.
Cells, tissues, and organs do not question information sent by the nervous system. Rather, they respond with equal fervor to accurate life-affirming perceptions and to self-destructive misperceptions. Consequently, the nature of our perceptions greatly influences the fate of our lives.
And here I see an unwarranted jump into positive thinking woo, as well as over-emphasis of nerve signals. What about signals sent by hormones and such through the blood? Positive thinking also has a lot of nasty ins and outs. Optimists most likely improve their chances of responding to treatment because they’re more motivated to follow their doctor’s instructions, or at least when it comes to things like taking pills regularly and showing up for procedures. Pessimists and depressed patients are more likely to skip treatments if they think there’s no point in trying.
While most of us are aware of the healing influences of the placebo effect, few are aware of its evil twin, the nocebo effect. Just as surely as positive thoughts can heal, negative ones-including the belief we are susceptible to an illness or have been exposed to a toxic condition-can actually manifest the undesired realities of those thoughts.
And here, he completely misunderstands the placebo and nocebo effects and what they’re capable of. They have the biggest effects on subjective measures, not objective ones. Someone given a placebo for pain is more likely to focus on the times when the pain isn’t so bad. Someone given a nocebo will imagine symptoms or interpret normal “symptoms of living” as being caused by the nocebo. The reason we test treatments against placebo is because the placebo effect happens to both groups. Both groups are going to interpret moments of improvement as being caused by the placebo, whether or not they’re real.
Japanese children allergic to a poison ivy-like plant took part in an experiment where a leaf of the poisonous plant was rubbed onto one forearm. As a control, a nonpoisonous leaf resembling the toxic plant was rubbed on the other forearm. As expected almost all of the children broke out in a rash on the arm rubbed with the toxic leaf and had no response to the imposter leaf.
What the children did not know was that the leaves were purposefully mislabeled. The negative thought of being touched by the poisonous plant led to the rash produced by the nontoxic leaf! In the majority of cases, no rash resulted from contact with the toxic leaf that was thought to be the harmless control. The conclusion is simple: positive perceptions enhance health, and negative perceptions precipitate dis-ease. This mind-bending example of the power of belief was one of the founding experiments that led to the science of psychoneuroimmunology.
For every question, there is an answer that is simple, elegant, and wrong. I don’t see a citation for this study, but even assuming the general story is accurate, so what? We know that people can develop rashes and some other symptoms from psychological causes. What does not follow is that all symptoms or all illnesses are caused by “negative perceptions.” His conclusion is a giant, unwarranted generalization from one narrow study that doesn’t even contradict the consensus expectation.
I think I’ll spare myself the last few paragraphs.