Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Mind-body panel 2: Christina Puchalski - "We know maybe forty percent"

Dr. Christina Puchalski is an Associate Professor in the Departments of Medicine and Health Care Sciences at The George Washington University School of Medicine in Washington, D.C. An expert in spirituality and health, she has also edited Time for Listening and Caring: Spirituality and the Care of the Seriously Ill and Dying.
I think mystery is a very real reality, if you will. The question is, “Can we really define it, can we understand it, and should we even study it?” I don’t have a particular answer, I’m just raising the question. The reason I bring this up is because in clinical settings, the concept of mystery is also very important. Again, I frequently work with dying patients, and as people are facing their death, there’s a lot of questions about life after death, about the value of their life, about how exactly the process is going to occur.

There’s a great deal of data about people who were told that they would only live two months but then lived ten years, and vice versa. There is a tremendous amount of uncertainty that occurs, and as physicians we’re largely trained to provide answers and to give certainty, but in fact, for those of us who have practiced a long time we realize that we know maybe forty percent, and there is this big black box of things we don’t know.

So part of the journey is helping patients be comfortable with mystery and uncertainty, and yet all throughout what we are talking about today is whether we can take that mystery and dissect it and study it? I don’t have an answer, but I do think that there is some value to just honoring that mystery, and saying maybe there are some things that we don’t know about, and that’s fine. And we can relate that to what Esther said earlier regarding the fact that with our current technology we can’t answer this question, although down the line we will perhaps be able to do so. But is there ever room to just accept that there is mystery and simply embrace it?
One way of understanding mystery is simply to say that we cannot, at any given time, understand all facets of the universe we live in or all aspects or consequences of a fact about it.

Atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel wrote a wonderful essay years ago, called What is it like to be a bat? No human can actually know that. If we are human, we are - by definition - not bats. So what it is like to be a bat will always be a mystery to us.

Next: Mind-body panel 2: Mario Beauregard - "Brain imaging data alone doesn't tell us whether an experience is real or not"


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