Archives for the month of: February, 2014

[Originally in Health Beat, Richmond Register, February 2014]

I’m old enough to remember seeing a breaking medical new story on television in 1982, about a retired dentist named Barney Clark.  What made this 61-year old man a celebrity at the time was that he was one of an early handful of people to be a recipient of a prototype Jarvik-7 artificial heart.  Sadly, Dr. Clark died of complications a few months later.  But the very fact that such an organ as important as the heart could be artificially simulated really grabbed the imaginations of many people during that era.  Would it not be a great feat indeed if people with diseased hearts could have a viable option when a transplant isn’t available?

Well, yes.  But there are other considerations here too.

In his book “The Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time,” author Jeff Speck comes at the discussion of health from a different angle.  Focusing on the design of cities for improved health and wellness, he cites situations of “green living,” in which well-meaning people try to reduce their carbon footprint and stay healthy by investing in technology.  Think of those “hybrid” vehicles we see on the road now, or the CFL bulbs we use instead of incandescents.  Speck refers to these types of decisions as a “gizmo green” philosophy.  Gizmo green technological solutions allow us to feel like we’re being proactive for our health, but really, they let us keep doing what we’ve always done, just with different gadgets.  Ultimately, Speck makes the observation that we can’t buy our way out of responsibility for our well-being.  For example, there is evidence that more fuel efficient cars lead to increased driving, with corresponding elevations of health-damaging pollution.  For the first time in history, the current generation of young people is expected to have a shorter average lifespan than their parents.  Clearly, if we want to live healthier, happier lives, we need to change our behavior, not buy more sophisticated toys so we don’t have to change our behavior.

Bringing this back to the artificial heart, then, it seems likely that the future of cardiac health for most of us is less about shunting resources into building a better replacement for a diseased blood pump, and more about what we as individuals can do daily to avoid heart disease in the first place.  Even in this medical domain, issues of goal-setting–with changes in behavior–are tasks where counselors can have some sway.

One major change I’ve made for myself in the past couple of years is that I stand up more.  Some studies suggest that by standing for two hours of a workday, we can significantly reduce the risks of heart disease.  Interestingly, these gains are most salient for women, though of course, anyone can benefit from moving around instead of sitting all the time.  By stacking up a few boxes or even an ironing board, you can easily and cheaply (an ironing board costs less than $30) make a “standing work station,” which will free your body from chair inertia.  I can’t speak for everyone, but I’ve found that standing elevates my mood, clears my thinking and as a bonus, it gets rid of that painful muscle spasm in my low back.  This is just one way changing behavior has the potential to help with your present health, and possibly your health in the years to come.


[Originally in Health Beat, Richmond Register, December 2013]

It’s a basic axiom in psychology that the way we think about ourselves determines a great deal about how we conduct ourselves.  And more importantly, how we feel about ourselves, both as individuals and a society.

In our modern world, the machine model has triumphed over our thinking about ourselves.  I can remember even in grade school, my classroom health textbooks had titles such as “the body machine,” and Saturday morning jingles like School House Rock stated, “You’re a machine, I’m a machine.”  The model is so popular because it offers up quick ways to measure health and treat illness.  Each body organ is a mini-machine, doing its specialized work, as part of a greater machine.  Food is our “fuel,” and exercise is considered a way to make the machine more “efficient.”  Doctors can even remove defective “parts” and replace them with transplanted tissue or even literally machine parts of metal and plastic.

There’s no surprise then that the machine model of the mind wasn’t far behind.  Sigmund Freud’s theory cast the mind as basically a steam engine.  Even today, research is out to find which piece of brain machinery controls this or that behavior.

As useful as it can be, though, the machine model can also take us to some pretty uncomfortable places.  For example, when a machine starts to break down, what do we do with it?  Why, we throw it away, of course, and get a new one.  A shinier one.  Newer is always better.  So how does this shape our ideas about the elderly?  Or about experienced employees in the workplace?  And because all machines exist to do work, the most important question: Now that we’ve made the human machine more efficient, what is its purpose?

What doesn’t get discussed much are the alternatives to the machine model.  In the book “Narrative Psychology: The Storied Nature of Human Conduct” (Sarbin, 1986), various authors propose a “story” model for a human being.  Now the word “story” gets a bad rap.  At best, it’s associated with fiction, entertainment.  In my grandparents’ time, saying a person “tells stories” was a euphemism for conveying that they told lies.

A  more forgiving definition for a story is “a set of events that happen over time.”  Each one of us has a story, and each part of our physical, mental and social lives also has a story.  We’re all walking, talking anthologies.  In a story, food ceases to be mere fuel, and becomes a way of sharing stories with others, even a story itself (“This meal was so good, how did you do it?”).  Exercise stops being about efficiency, and becomes a struggle against the odds, a means of heroism and self-improvement.

Unlike a machine, which has to be tasked with a future purpose, a story exists in the telling, in the present.  It is, that it is.  What’s more, stories are timeless.  Once a story exists, it is forever; no one can unmake what has already happened.  Each time we tell our story, we bring it to life all over again, we renew it.  Unlike machines, which have to be newer to be valued, stories can have some age on them.  Aren’t “the classics” older stories that have stood the test of time?  And what do we recall best about the elderly but the stories with which they gift us?

I’m rather drawn to the kinds of options that existing as a story can offer me.  So what is your story?