AH, THE VIRTUES OF LYING. The second issue of Scientific American Mind for 2005 explored the evolutionary benefits of fibbing--a kind of social glue that helps us get along with our fellow members of the human race--as explained by David Livingstone Smith in "Natural-Born Liars." Naturally, the editors were all very interested to receive reader feedback on Smith's article and the others in the issue. Yeah, that's right. We got bags of beautifully handwritten notes, many of them rose-scented, congratulating us on the finest issue ever produced. In fact, the whole edition will soon be used as the basis for a major motion picture, starring our dear friend Morgan Fairchild. Yeah, that's the ticket.
David Livingstone Smith's article, "Natural-Born Liars," states that "perhaps mental health rests on self-deception, and becoming depressed is based on an impairment of the ability to deceive oneself." He's right on the money.
Smith gives many examples of self deception, but I am a bit surprised he didn’t talk about the idea of “God” as one of the most significant and pervasive illustrations. It seems to me the people who stood around throwing flowers on a grave thousands of years ago realized that was where they were all headed, then manufactured a god to help them out. That was a pretty important act of self-deception.
It would not surprise me if a test of atheists and believers showed them both to be equally self-deceptive. The atheists, who probably include a lot of people who in childhood believed in a wrathful God, may now be practicing the self-deception that they would prefer an eternity of nothingness to the fires of hell!
I found Smith’s piece more than a little depressing. It infers that the only successful people are those who deceive themselves and others. I’m not too surprised that political leaders are successful at deception or that this trait may be considered to have an
evolutionary advantage. But I do question its virtue in the long term. Are we meant to be pathological? Consider some of our most successful world leaders of the past century: Hitler, Stalin and Mao.
About three years ago an Australian television science program called Catalyst ran a short feature on what made a successful rooster, with success being how well he was received by hens. The three attributes hens preferred were courage, honesty and being a good communicator. I would like to think these are characteristics humans admire as well. I have no doubt Smith is correct regarding the evolutionary heritage of our innate capacity for deception and self-deception. But let’s hope that even with that hardwiring people can encourage in themselves and others traits even a hen recognizes as important.
If I wasn’t already familiar with neurolinguistic programming (NLP), after reading “Psychotherapy Lite,” by Susanne Kemmer, I’d be likely to write NLP off as just another crackpot therapy. The story had many inaccuracies and tended to mislead as to the benefi ts of NLP. That is a distinct disservice to readers who will form an opinion solely based on the article. To refer to NLP as pop psychology describes the techniques incorrectly and fails to convey its legitimacy. For those who want more information about NLP, a 1,600-page Encyclopedia of Systemic NLP and NLP New Coding
is available on the Web site http://nlpuniversitypress.com
Whereas it is true that “little scientific proof of NLP’s effectiveness exists, Kemmer fails to note that fact is equally true of many psychotherapies that have been more thoroughly researched and are now broadly accepted by psychology professionals. Cognitive behavioral therapy has the best research validation, although its methods are crude, primitive and slow compared with NLP.
In contrast to most mainstream psychotherapies, NLP has clearly defined how to use the therapy and how to test the outcomes to assess a patient’s improvement, making the process eminently suitable for definitive research. Many of us in the field would be happy to participate in such clinical research, under the most stringent and controlled conditions.
MIND AND BODY
Regarding “Head Attack,” by Michael Feld and Johann Caspar Rüegg: theories that propose what goes on inside your head leading to physical reactions, called psychosomatosis, are some of the most contentious areas of medicine. Such a diagnosis is based on subjective factors and is nearly impossible to prove.
It is convenient for physicians who cannot fi gure out what is wrong with a patient to write the symptoms off as psychosomatic, especially if the person has received a similar diagnosis in the past. But symptoms that at first seem to be psychosomatic can turn out to be precursors to serious diseases and disorders. Multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s, gastric ulcers, tuberculosis and other ailments were once considered psychosomatic, until they were clearly shown to be otherwise.
Psychiatry and psychology have a long and troubled history of trying to make the psyche do far more causal work than can be justified. Such overreaching has often been in service of questionable political, economic, social or moral ideological fads. The article failed to discuss the many serious difficulties related to the notion of attributing illness to psychosomatic causes, and by not doing so, it did a grave disservice.
NOW HEAR THIS
In the recent issue you discuss two subjects that I, as a surgeon, see as related to each other: “The Truth and the Hype of Hypnosis,” by Michael R. Nash and Grant Benham, and “Can They Hear Us?” [Head Lines] by Aimee Cunningham, about brain-damaged—
but nonetheless aware—patients. The area I see connecting them is general anesthesia.
I know that posthypnotic and postanesthetic suggestions have worked. I have told anesthetized patients they would wake up “comfortable, thirsty and hungry.” After several people complained to me about their weight gain following surgery, I changed it to "hungry, but you won’t fi nish everything on your plate.”
I also saw the effect my words had on patients’ ability to control body processes. Reassuring words appeared to help in diminishing bleeding, returning heartbeats to regular rhythm and restoring vital signs to normal.
Some of the most notable examples of what I think are patients responding to my words have been when I have told vegetative patients it was all right to go—and within a few minutes they did.
The last sense to go and the first sense to reappear during and after hypnosis and anesthesia is hearing, which makes it a powerful way to communicate with patients who otherwise appear to be unaware of their surroundings.