“The philosopher George Herbert Mead believed that words have visceral components. We feel in our guts what we say. Even if we consciously use one meaning for a word, our bodies react to all of its meanings. This corresponds to what Hindus mean when they speak about the vibration of a sound and how that vibration resonates within the whole body. Through our social interactions, we learn to feel some words differently than others. Are we speaking healing words or sickness words? We find out by listening to the stories we tell and perceiving their effects upon our bodies and upon our listeners.
Of course, if you don’t accept the oneness of mind and body, this idea is crazy. Nevertheless, I will point to emerging evidence from quantum physics to support my argument that we are all connected, that connectivity is fact, that separation is impossible, that doctor and patient become a treatment unit just like mind and body or word and illness… The stories we tell about our illnesses are actions upon the world that result in confirmation of the way we see things.
My goal is to tell healing stories, and to teach people who are telling sickness stories how to sing a different tune. In Coyote Wisdom, I ask readers to consider a different paradigm of health and disease than what is familiar…
This would change the way we practice medicine, psychology, and counselling. It would change the way we attempt to solve problems. If story and illness are connected like chicken and egg, then we cannot just diagnose the illness; we must also “diagnose” the story, meaning that we must understand the illness as something created through the mutual entanglements of relationship – entanglements of biology, culture, and spirit. Language is the vehicle for exploring these webs of connection.” (p.5)
“…We evolve through relationships. This idea is central to Cherokee and Lakota healing – the two cultures with which I have genetic connections. Healing involves restoration of a “right relationship”. I need to hear your story the story you tell about yourself and your illness, to know where you relationships are disturbed. The unfolding of the story provides the clues about where to restore balance and harmony.” (p.4)
“Through carefully listening to a person’s story about their illness (and the stories told by others in his or her community), we can begin to grasp the imbalances and disturbances of harmony that foster illness. Illness arises as a creative solution to problems created out of our imbalances and disharmonies. The illness can always be seen as a partially successful attempt at healing. We need to know what problems the illness has helped to solve and which still need to be addressed.
This “storied” approach to healing can also explain the so-called placebo effect. In this self-healing response, we share in the creation of a story to suggest how I can get well. The story may or not be grounded in biological science, but because we believe it to be true, it serves as a pivot point for changing the story I tell about my illness and its destiny. This approach can make both conventional medicine and alternative medicine adherents uncomfortable. Their structuralist culture seeks specific answers that apply uniformly to everyone. “Mercury is bad. Everyone needs mercury fillings removed. “Coffee prevents colon cancer.” “Vitamins are bad for cancer patients. They make the cancer grow.” “Macrobiotics will cure cancer.” “Everyone needs cholesterol-lowering drugs.” “Meat is bad.” “Carbohydrates are bad.” “Take Prozac.” “Drink spring water.” “Go get a bee sting.” A recent article in Scientific American concluded that the only certainty about medical recommendations to prevent heart disease is that they change every two years.
The storied approach to healing makes the radical hypotheses that no pure biological facts exist. Biological investigations without specification of the subject’s beliefs (revealed through the stories they tell about themselves), family constellation (revealed through the stories family members tell about each other and the family), culture (revealed through the recurring themes or stores everyone hears – the so called pop culture of the modern world), and spirituality (revealed through the religious stories people hear and repeat) are incomplete and prone to inaccuracy.
This does not mean that clinical trials will not reveal biological trends, given sufficiently large numbers of subjects, but it does suggest that even these trends flow with the flux of culture. It suggests that medical treatment as we conceptualise it may be ineffective because of our lack of grounding in these larger contexts. Herein lies the essence of what I am calling narrative medicine (or “Coyote Wisdom”) – that biology is embedded in larger hierarchies; families, communities, cultures, and historical time periods. Biology cannot be studied apart from the context in which it is embedded.
Modern philosophers are coming to similar conclusions. Wittgenstein, for example, began his career believing that language would lead us to the truth. He ended his career believing that meaning relies on how people use language with one another and is anchored in human communication and evaluation. He came to understand that there is more than one correct way to understand and communicate, that understanding cannot be pre-mapped in a one-size-fits-all manner from which we can assess the accuracies of our communication and understanding. I suggest that similar implications hold for biological medicine – that our efforts to find one-treatment-fits-all-with-that-diagnosis are doomed to fail when we ignore the world in which biology is placed. We can discover that world only by hearing the stories of people who suffer, along with the stories told by their families, their cultures, and their religions. And that world is changed when we “contaminate” those stories with alternate stories suggesting other ways of interpreting and organising the same experiences to lead to different outcomes – healing, health, and spiritual well-being.
While it remains mysterious that telling stories can change physiology, scientific research is beginning to discover potential explanations for how this happens. Stories affect our states of mind, which are reflected in changes in the brain states. When we are happy, PET scans of the brain show patterns of regional blood flow different from when we are sad. These patterns of blood flow are different in states of joy compared with states of depression. The stories we tell ourselves inform us about how to perceive the world around us. They even tell us how to interpret our bodily sensations. Change the stories and perception changes. Changed perception means changed experience, and change in experience alters brain biology. Since the brain regulates everything in the body, including the immune system, the body changes when the brain changes. Here is the beginning of our understanding about how stories can have healing power.” (p.6-7)
Lewis Mehl-Madrona – from is book Coyote Wisdom