A Hygiene Hypothesis of the Mind

"I break down my model as I  teach it so as not to believe it too much."-Gil Hedley
“I break down my model as I teach it so as not to believe it too much.”-Gil Hedley

There has been some exciting developments in the world of microbial research lately. It turns out that the immune system may get stronger by being challenged. For some time, our culture has tried to eliminate challenges from external things like bacteria, viruses and parasites. We have tried to reduce the discomfort of (most) people in every way possible, from never having to feel cold or hot to never having to walk up stairs or experiencing drippy snot. Culturally, we may have solved some problems with this way of thinking. For example, I rarely get a chamberpot full of excrement dumped on my head while flaneuring through the streets. But we have created problems with this paradigm, too.

However, it is not the issue of the fragility of our physical immune systems that I am thinking about today, but the mental consequences of this paradigm. Resilience, adaptability and mental agility are like meaty biceps-they must be actively challenged in order to grow. And by keeping ourselves away from challenges to our worldview we are complicit in  creating our own fragility.

How does this apply to the world of health?

There are 2 extremes in the world of health-care.  (oversimplification alert)

The first is the super-woo, those un-grounded folks who believe that alternative health-care is the ONLY way, that everything ancient and natural is good and everything “chemical” and medical is an evil conspiracy. This type of person will try any insane remedy as long as it’s marketed with alternative buzzwords like energy, crystalline, conspiracy theory,  ozonated and detox. They embrace gurus, appropriate everything and pursue clean colons like it’s their religion.

The second extreme is the super-skeptic. They worship Science with a capital S. They will never try even the most un-controversial alternative to standardized medicine, such as bitters or meditation or massage. They equate every non-scientist with crystal-pushing homeopathy-sucking snake-handling opossum-humpers and never, ever pass up a chance to put others down. They call everyone who doesn’t agree with them a “quack” or a “witch doctor”, (which BTW is kinda racist.)


So how have we gotten to this state? I see it as a refusal to challenge our own beliefs. It is so easy to see how other people should question THEIR beliefs–but fail to examine our own. And it’s not just healthcare–this happens in politics, culture, religion, food, fitness. My god is the best god. Rap is offensive but Elvis is heroic. Vegans are crazy but Paleo is totally reasonable. Noone should squat. Everyone should squat. Guns don’t kill people! People kill people! But only bad people! And thrift store clothes are full of demons! Agh! How are we even alive?!?!?!

Whew. And this fear-based existence is contributing to an inability to innovate and create and  thrive-and blocking us from working together.

It’s like the other side is a dark forest that inspires fear and distrust inside of us, but it’s actually just what we need…a trip into the darkness, an exploration of some other ways of being, of understanding, of seeing.

We are not facing our fears.

We are not entering the forest.

We are in denial of other possibilities.

We live in fear of discomfort.

It is time to rebuild our bridges, my friends. To integrate, to work together, to create. Time to question what we have accepted, and why. Time to experiment.  If your beliefs are truly your beliefs, they will stand up under scrutiny, under an influx of new information, under debate.

Because listening to opposing viewpoints does not create doubt. Doubt is already there. Exploration just reveals it.

And it turns out that some of our beliefs will be bullhockey.

And it turns out that we may look more deeply at something we dislike and realize it is actually dogshit, and we were right all along. But at least we checked.

So let’s stop sanitizing our incoming information. Let’s stop getting all of our news from sources we like. Let’s stop avoiding people who we disagree with. Let’s stop suppressing and blocking “the other”. Let’s cross-pollinate and come up with some new paths. Let’s get our minds dirty with the beneficial bacteria of a new way of thinking and populate our thoughts with questions and systematic inquiry. Let’s move forward, free from the fear of challenge and change, together.


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