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You accidentally touch a heated stove — your hand’s recoil happens fast and efficiently. A solution our distant evolutionary ancestors proved to be useful. For once our ego is not asked any questions, that’s too slow! It’s an automatic reaction, a shortcut.
But let’s dig deeper: perhaps your hand’s recoil will hurt you more than the stove, but there’s no logical A+B thinking around it. No risk measurement, just motion.
In many ways our western culture make a bizarre distinction between body and mind. From the enduring Roman Empire cliché Mens sana in corpore sano (“a healthy mind in a healthy body”), we can see this separation have been running for millenia. Yet, if not part of the body, then what is the mind? The same blood that power our muscles also enables our thoughts. Every thought and feeling you ever had was an exchange of chemicals.
So, if it’s all physical reactions — the hand as much as the thought — we can understand the mind’s protection reflexes, the psychological defense mechanisms, are as natural, automatic and inevitable as your recoil motion.
Now, follow me through this rabbit hole here: if a nurse is always ready for some pain reaction when the needle opens the skin, why many of our processes are not ready to deal with the psychological defenses of the brain? In pretty serious scenarios like cancer profiling, we rely on the patient’s answers to a questionnaire, but not always our questionnaires are ready to avoid the — natural, inevitable — false answers the body provides in order to protect itself.
We’ve all heard about these barriers the mind creates, yet not always we take them into full consideration. Let’s talk about some of the most common ones today, just so our minds stay fresh and sharp.
Picture that: you’re a resident doctor fresh from university. You’re supposed to diagnose this gentleman. He’s 80, dressed in a brown suit and hair meticulously combed. Yet, he’s behaving like an second grader. Avoiding your questions, talking about unrelated subjects, even mildly insulting you.
This might sound unreasonable, but temporarily regressing your mind’s state to an ‘earlier build’ is one of the most basic defenses the mind develops. In this state, nobody’s answers can’t be trusted, yet there’s no way a questionnaire can check in which mind state (or shall we say, in which mind age) the patient is.
Doctor Jacobs asks Peter to tell him, from 1 to 10, how much pain he’s feeling. Peter promptly replies 3. He’s alright! At least compared to yesterday, that’s for sure. The unseen part of this conversation is that… if you asked Peter how much pain his wife Pam was feeling — she’s right there beside the hospital bed — he’d say probably 5.
Another very usual strategy the mind creates is to project one’s anxious feelings and/or bad behaviours on somebody else’s.
Let’s say Peter’s wife was not around and he had to look for another way to deal with that stressful pain question Doctor Jacobs was asking. Again, from 1 to 10, how much pain are you experiencing. Peter sincerely answers: 2.
The most usual of all defenses. Denial is powerful.
In fact, so much so that one can, for example, physically stop the feeling of pain. A sort of brain-powered anesthesia. The mind will go a long way to avoid pain, even if it has to forget sedimented memories or blur logical reasoning.
No new information here. Everybody knows about those! But to actually empathize and deeply understand those systems requires a potent skillset. This is one of the many challenges the pharma industry has to deal with when treating — and understanding cancer patients.
It touches one of Dealmaker challenges on the spot: how can we innovate framing and listing when dealing with cancer patients. Is there a better, new way to group and help these people?
Let’s flip the script, play a new and better game.