October 5th, 2010

How Much Evidence Do You Need

10 Comments

One day some months ago, in the middle of a very intense segment, Anat asked my class: “How much evidence do you need to know that something is so?”  Today, a number of events have conspired to encourage me to consider these words.

This afternoon I posted a New York Times article @robinpzander on the effects of tai chi on fibromyalgia.  The research article discussed in the Times was published in the New England Journal of Medicine – a rather prestigious journal – and the Times enthusiastically discussed the findings.  I have only dabbled in tai chi (specifically tai chi chuan) but have enormous respect for the form(s) and it comes as no surprise to me that medical professionals found positive effects on the little-understood neurological degenerative condition or conditions that we call fibromyalgia.  Tai chi consists of a series of interconnected movements executed slowly with attention.  Sound familiar?  That’s two basic precepts of human motor learning:

  1. Movement with attention
  2. Slow

While there may well be aspects specific to tai chi that improve nervous system functioning, I need no further proof than these underlying precepts to satisfy my personal search for knowledge.

Later today I shared the Times article with my mother.  My mother’s is the voice in my head that asks, when I’m confronting a difficult decision, how does it feel?  (Good?  Go for it!  Bad!  Leave.)  She was a bit dismayed that so much time, energy, and money was put in to creating a scientific article that says something that is (for her) self-evident.  Of course moving gently with attention improves functioning.  What of it?

That said, she has been repeatedly surprised by the impact of her current favorite form of movement: a very specific restorative yoga class.  Her recent report was that she slept very deeply for a full night for the first time in several months.  When I asked what happened in class I heard an increasingly familiar set of words: gentle, slow, attention, movement.

A dear friend recently had a routine check-up with her physician.  One of her major on-going projects has been eating foods that are gentle on her system.  In stressful times she always falls back on broths, soups, and easily digested ingredients.  I have not known many people so dedicated to their slow road to recovery as my friend, but as she says – she must, therefore she does.  In this case, she was discussing her status with her doctor and feeling a little overwhelmed by the current stumbling blocks.  His response (reproduced to the best of my ability) was: “There is no method or organization, person or process that can tell you what to do.  You have to feel what is right for you and do that.”  He elaborated by saying that there is no such thing as trying.  “Don’t ask ‘how can I eat better?’ Ask ‘what am I going to eat today?'”

First, I’m in awe of any Medical Doctor with such comprehensive and holistic knowledge.  I know they exist but I certainly haven’t encountered many in my own experience at Kaiser Permanente.  After I got over that initial response, I heard the underlying message: How does it feel?  This medically trained professional is well-published and (as I understand such things) well-respected within nutritional medicine but he is not asking my friend to follow a specific regime.  Instead, she has been given the power and responsibility to follow her own intuition or thinking or common sense or whatever we want to call it.

I foresee a hosts of arguments again the question of How Much Evidence Do You Need.  I have studied enough Cognitive Psychology to know that humans are often very poor decision makers (Thank You, Dan Reisberg.) On the other hand, I’ve had enough experiences of not stopping to think before acting to see some strong correlations between how something feels during or afterward.  (Those 4 donuts at a friend’s 14th birthday party…? I haven’t eaten a donut since, I felt so ill.  Hiked up the mountain as it was getting dark…?  Covered in poison oak, cold, and lost on the mountain.)

This is my first approximation putting down in words what for me is just a feeling or an idea.  But consider: How do you decide whether to take a shortcut through a dark ally?  How do you feel?  If you feel unsafe, that’s all the evidence you’ll ever need to not go down that ally.  I’m not interested in dismissing hard scientific proof.  I’m just curious what would happen if we were to ask ourselves the question:

How much evidence do you need to know that something is so?

(And how do you feel about it?)


10 thoughts on “How Much Evidence Do You Need

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