Saturday, May 21, 2011

Positive Thinking

Since my diagnosis with bladder cancer, I have had several conversations with friends who have urged me to "think positive!" This is an admonition to which I respond generally negatively, for reasons that go back to the time when my father was dying of cancer in the mid-seventies.

In those days, there was a popular idea that there was a "cancer personality:" introverted, pessimistic. I found the idea hurtful and unscientific. Cancer, I believed, was strictly a consequence of events in the physical world. The idea of preventing or curing cancer by thinking happy thoughts was superstitious nonsense designed to blame the victim and, perhaps obscure the reponsibility of polluters who were pumping carcinogens ino the environment.

Since then, my ideas about how the mind interacts with the body have changed significantly. Since I conceive of human consciousness as a manifestation of physical events in the brain and since we know that the major function of the brain is to control the functioning of the body, it seems perfectly possible to imagine that how a person thinks and feels can effect how his body reacts to cancer or anything else. The brain is an organ of the body connected to the rest of it by nerve, blood, bone, etc. and the function of the brain effects the other organs just as their function effects the brain.

So, what bothers me now about the admonition to "think positive" is not the notion that positive thinking might help, but my inability to understand what it means for "me" to decide how I will think or feel. If my self, my ego, is, in fact, a consequence of my brain function, how can "I" cause my brain to think about things differently when "I" am, in fact, an idea or sensation produced by the material action of my brain? The causation arrow runs the wrong way. Indeed, it seems that my optimism waxes and wanes with my physical state--I think optimistic thoughts when I have had enough sleep and eaten healthy food.

So, rather than trying to fool myself into believing things that are not true, my conclusion is to try to improve my state of mind by taking care of my physical body by making decisions about what to eat, exercise, etc. Hopefully, that will produce the positive brain activity that will help me survive.


kateg said...

as you know i also hate this injunction. In my opinion, feel however you want, and its easy for non-cancer-ridden people to say "think positive!" and run marathons and buy extra t-shits or whatever.

But despite having a mere 50% of your life experience, i disagree that you cannot change your thoughts. You can, and the benefit is spending less time having fewer negative stressful thoughts, rahter than immune response. Anyway, a basic tenet of cognitive behavioral therapy is that you CAN change your pattern of thought, simply by recognizing "habits" of thought (say every morning you wake up and think "I cant get it all done" or "if things dont work out i can kill myself" or "im just going to die anyway, what does it matter" or "i'll always be poor" or whatever negative habit if thought you have) CBT asks you to recognize the thought in its own right in a kinda meta way--and if you dont like having that thought you can replace it with a second one like "Being busy makes me more productive" or even just "If things dont work out, I can always move, get a new job, etc" or whatever habit of thought you want to use instead.

This works--to me its kind of like mental yoga. Do enough hand-stands and they aren't hard and you even want to do them; think enough "positive" thoughts and you get better at it.

Similarly you can recognize consistent logical flaws that you make in many areas of thought--eg black and white thinking, and begin to notice when it happens, and consciously think "actually things aren't that black and white" and rethink through the problem without the extremism.

That said, I dont think that is what most of the "think positive" people mean. I think they mean "dont make me uncomfortable by being sad." And sometimes being sad is necessary and logical.

Texan By Chance said...

My problem is with the idea of "I" directing my mind what to think. Perhaps I'm engaging in the kind of hyper-logical thinking that Dr. Holmes mocked in "One-Hoss Shay."

I know about cognitive therapy, and thought about it while writing the post. My problem may be that that I am not taking seriously my own admonition on the existence of free will: Yeah, from God's viewpoint everything you think or do is determined, but there is no God.

kateg said...

maybe the problem there is still thinking there is an "I" separate from (and static with respect to) the collection of constantly changing neurotransmitters, chemicals and cells that make up body and mind--like you believe it but not *really*. just because there isnt such an "I" dosnt mean there is no will, direction, and some limited control