Category Archives: Mind Body

Skeptical Musings on Mindfulness

By Marvin Ross with an Addendum by Dr David Laing Dawson

I am pleased to say that I now have something in common with an apologist for Catholicism when it comes to Mindfulness. Susan Brinkman warns Catholics about the dangers of this practice in her book A Catholic Guide to Mindfulness. We have some criticisms in common although part of her objection to this overly touted strategy is that it is too closely linked to Bhuddism. She is concerned that people will abandon prayer and move away from talking to God for the relaxation of the mindful strategies.

Where we do agree is that Mindfulness is oversold and not well researched with valid studies. As we all have likely seen, mindfulness is promoted for stress reduction, depression, anxiety, pain control and likely more. Ms Brinkman cites a metaanalysis from Johns Hopkins University from 2014 that looked at 18,000 studies and found that only 47 (or .0026%) were methodologically sound. Over 99% of the studies to evaluate efficacy were not sound.

Of those 47 studies, “the research found only ‘moderate evidence’ of decreased anxiety, depression and pain and ‘low evidence’ of improved mental health-related quality of life.” She also points out that there is a great deal of money to be made by practitioners.

The poor methodological quality of mindfulness studies mentioned by Ms Brinkman have not gone unnoticed in the field. This past October, a new study was published that set out to evaluate studies over the past 16 years for signs of improved methodological rigour. They found that of the 142 research projects they looked at, there was only a slight improvement in methodology and the studies still appeared to lack scientific validity.

In reporting on this latest study, psychologist James Coyne asks this:

Should we still take claims about mental health benefits of mindfulness with a grain of salt?

His answer:

“A systematic review by one of mindfulness training’s key promoters suggests maybe so.”

Addendum from Dr Dawson sent from Australia

Two popular contemporary forms of counselling can each be summed up in a simple piece of advice, and a piece of advice most of us have heard at least once from our parents and grandparents. “Look on the bright side.” (CBT) and “Stop and smell the roses.” (Mindfulness).

They do not speak to mental illness, suffering, disease, or much of reality. But they do address the existential problem of we humans being conscious life forms with an awareness of ourselves as vulnerable bags of mostly water with limited life spans.

We must anticipate danger and threat to survive, but failing a math test is not a terminal diagnosis. We must, as I must now, remember to look first to my right (Australia) before crossing the road. This is a moment when it is not wise to let the roses distract.

We know it is not good to be pessimistic and constantly worried, but there are moments when anxiety and worry are required. We know it is not good to miss the calm, the peace, the beauty of this world and always be distracted by the traffic but I still need to remember to look to my right and then my left before crossing the street.

The popularity of Mindfulness (and Buddhism for that matter) speaks to how hard it is to find that balance, how hard it is to be a sentient being not always terrified, worried, fearful, angry, jealous and preoccupied by the intricacies of life and the certainty of death.

Yesterday at The Rocks in Sydney among the tourists and locals we several times watched a man trudge by dressed in brown monk’s robes, a large hat and boots, wondering what he was up to. Then in a moment when I was distracted he approached my wife and slipped a cheap beaded bracelet on her wrist, and then another on the wrist of our granddaughter, and then said something about money and showed her a book of initials beside a list of sums. The figures were each between 20 and 50 dollars. I muttered “no, no, no” as my wife reached for her purse and came up with five dollars. I told him it was bad karma to con people. I’m not sure if he said, “f***k off” or “father” as he left us. He also gave her a gold (thin plastic) medallion with the words “Work Smoothly” and “Lifetime Peace” printed on it.

We had at least five dollar’s worth of laughter and chatter from this, before falling back to enjoying the warm sun, the pigeons and Rainbow Larakeets, the parade of old and young humans from several continents, the busker at the corner, and the delightful teasing inquisitive grandchild sitting between us. My daughter arrived 20 minutes late having been stuck in Sydney traffic and forced to park four blocks away in an expensive arcade. This put her in a foul mood, which was quickly alleviated by a bit of paternal mindfulness and CBT.


Understanding the Disease Model

By Dr David Laing Dawson

I had a friendly argument with a colleague the other day. He reminded me that we had been arguing about this topic for 40 years. I think our arguments are mostly ways of clarifying our own thoughts about a very complicated question involving concepts of mind, of cognition, and of the brain, that organ who’s function makes us human.

Mental illness, disease, disorder, serious mental illness, continuum, spectrum, problem, affliction – when is it both valid and useful to consider aberrations (or non-typical) variations in behaviour and thought, illnesses? In some ways these words are just words, and few would care if we referred to arthritis in any of these terms. But when it comes to behavior, thought, and communication (rather than joint flexibility and joint pain) our dearly held beliefs about self, autonomy, will, power, consciousness, and mortality come into play. The discussion becomes political.

Before the medical disease concept evolved in the 18th and 19th century most afflictions were considered very personal and specific, and the causes very personal and specific. An obvious grouping of afflictions might mean God was particularly disappointed in a whole family or tribe. The Miasmists thought that perhaps God did not have that much control over everything and proposed that the causes might be found in the atmosphere, the miasma, physical, spiritual, emotional. An excess or a deficit. The Naturopaths liked this idea but knowing nothing of physiology, metabolism, or nutrition, concocted potions and powders with dozens of ingredients positing that the body might choose from the lot that which it needed. Each of these ideas continues to echo in the pursuit of health today. Especially in the commercial exploitation of our pursuit of health.

The disease model is founded on the idea that if a number of people suffer the same symptoms and signs, and if their affliction follows the same course with the same outcome then perhaps these people suffer from the same “thing”. This in turn raises the possibility that the cause is the same in all cases and that a treatment that works for one will work for the others. To study this we need to name (diagnose) the thing and describe it’s symptoms, signs, and natural course. Given that we are biological beings it is reasonable to think that some of the signs of these diseases will be biological, and that the causes might be as well. But first the chore is to observe, study, collate, find groupings and test this hypothesis.

In a sense the disease model has picked off all the low hanging fruit, those illnesses with very specific causes and courses and, of course, those for which we have found specific treatments, cures and prevention.

The disease model, and some rudimentary epidemiology, led Dr. John Snow to the source of an outbreak of cholera and then to speculate that the cause, residing in the water supply, “behaved as if it were a living organism”. This before we knew about bacteria, let alone viruses, prions, DNA, and neurohomones.

The same disease model has led to the near eradication of Polio. Drs. Alzheimer and Kraeplin applied the disease model to older people with failing cognitive processes and singled out an illness we now call Alzheimers. Dr. Alzheimer had the advantage of being able to examine the brains of his patients soon after diagnosis. Dr. Kraeplin went on to apply the disease model to a younger group of patients with peculiar cognitive difficulties, some similar to dementia, some not, and singled out a group he called dementia praecox, and another group he called manic depressive. Similarly and more recently the disease model singled out autism from the broader group of mentally handicapped children.

The disease model also allows us to study afflictions and find remedies before, sometimes long before we establish with certainty the causes of the affliction. Who on earth but a cruel idealogue would want us to stop treating and reducing suffering until we find an exact and specific cause of the affliction in question, be it cancer, arthritis, or schizophrenia. Yet that is the cant of the anti-psychiatry folks.

Yet the disease model allows us, sometimes by accident, to find remedies that work, can be proven to work, before we nail down etiology. Now, as mentioned earlier, the disease model has picked off the low hanging fruit, those afflictions caused by single alien organisms, and very specific genetic aberrations. We are left with those that are undoubtedly the product of complex combinations of genetic vulnerability, epigenetic influences in the womb, environmental influences, developmental timing, excesses, and deficits.

But we should no more give up on the disease model for schizophrenia and depression than for heart disease, cancer, arthritis, ALS, and dementia.

Our argument was actually about OCD. Having some Obsessive and Compulsive traits can be an asset of course, and of great help in medical school, while extreme OC traits can be debilitating. The “D” of OCD is the initial for “disorder” of course, but is OCD, in annoying to debilitating form, a disease?

Unfortunately the word “disease” has become freighted with negative association, and for my friend, too much associated with “biological cause”.

Ultimately he may think of OCD as a mind problem, while I may think of it as a mind/brain problem, but it is the discipline of the medical disease concept that allows us to study it and find remedies we can test.

On the Difficulty of Comprehending the Mind and the Body in Mental Illness.

David Laing Dawson

By Dr David Laing Dawson

I have trouble getting my head around infinity, the ever-expanding universe. Eternity troubles me as well. And the speed of light. One tiny copper telephone wire brings me moving images on my big screen TV, and surround sound at the same time. I understand this copper wire is transmitting simple binary code, zeros and ones, but think of the speed required to refresh 1080 pixels per inch every two hundredths of a second. (or whatever that calculation might be). I just don’t have the capacity to imagine, to picture these things in my “mind”. Perhaps Stephen Hawking can. I can’t.

And then we have the problem of duality, mind and body, or mind and brain. How can one imagine the brain constituting the I, without a homunculus inside it, a spirit, a ghost, an identity, a me? As difficult as it is to imagine infinity and eternity, it is equally difficult to imagine the “I” as simply a product of the brain. We don’t want to think of ourselves as simply biological beings with limited lifespan, and our consciousness being merely an expanded version of the self-awareness of a lobster.

Hence the struggle many of us have to accept that something gone wrong with the brain, the biological information machine we call the brain, can affect the “I”. And the corollary to this, that some medicines, some psychiatric drugs, can alter the biochemistry of this broken brain and affect the “I”, and perhaps return it to a more usual state. And that this can be a good thing.

Thus the battle lines are drawn. Mental illness can’t be an illness affecting the brain, the neurotransmitters and receivers of the brain, improved with pharmaceuticals that alter perception and cognition because this would imply that there is no “I” separate from the brain. And we don’t want to imagine that. At the very least we want to imagine that the “I” can influence the biological brain, rather than vice versa. (To say nothing of those who want to believe that the “I”, our attitudes and beliefs, can influence the course of cancer).

Curiously, with recreational drugs we have no problem thinking that they work on the brain and yet alter our perception, our cognition, our awareness, our sense of time, our sense of humour, our sense of urgency, our volition, and our interpretations of reality. Though even here there are those among us who think cannabis, mescaline, peyote, LSD, can cause the “I” to experience an alternative, more spiritual reality. No. They are simply altering the chemistry of our electrochemical transmitters and receivers, and thus altering the manner in which our brain processes information coming to it through our sensory organs and from our memory banks.

I think those are the struggles behind what seems obvious to the rest of us: The best treatment of severe mental illness combines medication(s) that work, and a good, compassionate person “working with” the sufferer over time. That person can be the same one prescribing the medication, or someone else on the team. And I say “working with” that person, meaning being there for him or her, meeting regularly, talking and supporting, counseling and instructing, accepting and directing.

Many would like to define that part, “working with”, in such specific terms that it can be patented, marketed, and promoted, and even promoted as something more wholesome and natural than medicine. So we have a proliferation of mindfulness therapies, CBT, DBT, and onward. In fact, if you check Wikipedia you will find there are, on average, about 5 kinds of psychotherapies per letter of the alphabet.

We need to get past this dichotomous thinking, once and for all. I have been listening to these arguments now for about 50 years.

Someone who is ill, be it of the body, brain, or “mind”, can be helped with medications that work, proven scientifically to work, and by having someone in his or her corner.