So, are things getting better or not?

We tend to laugh at the obvious blunders of people of the past who, lacking adeguate scientific development, made decisions based on superstitions and implausible beliefs , even when it mattered most (such as health or legal trials).

We think we are different. We think we are doing things in an “obviously right” way and from the right mindset. In other words, we implicitely assume we are already applying something as the Functional Mindset (approaching a given goal with a strategy that is in line with the currently available knowledge about that topic),  and we would never imagine our decisions being in such an open contrast with currently available scientific facts.

But how justified is this assumption? I would argue that, despite the obvious and massive increase in the available scientific knowledge, we are less functional than ever.

Imagine living in world where:

  • when you are sick, your medical care is focused on the removal of the “evil spirits” that possessed you, causing the disease
  • when your liberty (or life) is at stake because you are accused of having committed a crime, your trial is based on a shaman reading “the will of the gods” from some bones, instead of evidence
  • your human and legal right depend on the status you are born in, since this is determined by the deeds you committed in your previous life, and thus if you are treated as an inferior human being you deserve it

It doesn’t sound to nice, does it?

Now, few educated people today would accept to base their decisions in their everyday lives on principles like that. As our scientific understand of the world has increased, we tend to see such reminders of the past as something that is gone.

In fact, the problem is exactly that our scientific knowledge (and in general our understanding of the scientific method) have increased. Of course, that’s a good thing by itself. However, the more our knowledge increase the more we have the potential to achieve effectively whatever goal we aim towards.

Which also means that, if we fail to do so because we reject this knowledge and instead keep doing the things we are used to, even though we now have better alternatives, we are wasting all that potential.

Ultimately, scientific progress can only bring that: the potential to change towards a better direction. Discoverying the cure against a disease, or a method to prevent it, does not bring a positive change in our lives. It only brings the potential to do so. This potential does not necessarely translates into actual improvement, as people may simply decide to ignore this knowledge or to not apply it in their life.

How much has our scientific knowledge increased?

Science doesn’t know everything, of course. Even within the most well studied fields (say, physics), new discoveries keep coming and our best theories keep developing. When it comes to discussing our everyday life, that’s even worse: the relevant fields (such as medicine or psychology) have become a science only in very very recent times.

In fact, often the transition between a “field of knowledge” and a science is often still occurring. Just as “physics” existed at least since the time of Aristotle, and became a science only 2000 years later.

Medicine has existed for thousands of years, and any population had their cures against most diseases, which were not based on any scientific principles. We know today that the most frequently used medical procedure in history (bloodletting) was not only perfectly ineffective, but also dangerous. In other words, it only had side effects, but no actual benefits. Physicians have been treating patients for centuries, with their knowledge of the human body being as limited, for example, as including the cardiocentric model of anatomy (the belief that intellect and consciousness come from the heart, rather than the brain).

One of the main reasons this was possible, is that we lacked the understanding of the importance of a “control group”. The patients receiving the treatments did, sometimes, eventually heal. We failed to understand the importance of asking ourselves: “did patient heal at different rates, depending on the procedure”. So, we used to think “well, we did that and some patients healed, so it works”, instead of asking ourselves “some patients heal, but do they heal more often when we do this procedure, compared to those who do not receive the treatment”. Or worse, do they actually heal less often (or die), if they receive the “treatment”? This is one of the basic principle science uses to figure out which treatments are effective and safe. Yet, the first experiment using a control group was conducted only in 1753, by James Lind (who discovered that scurvy could be prevented by an appropriate intake of vitamin C).

When we move from medicine itself to the study of human health and wellbeing more in general, science stepped in even later. You will be hardly surprised to hear that there is a connection between physical activity and heart disease. That is “common knowledge”, right? The fact that this is hardly a surprising news make us lose perspective on how special it is to have this knowledge.

There has not been any factual evidence about the link between physical activity and health until 1953, when scientist Jerry Morris published his data about the heart-attack rates of London transport workers, which he had been tracking since 1949. His research showed how conductors (who, on those double-decker buses climbed about 600 stairs each working day) had fewer than half the heart attacks of their colleagues working as drivers (who sat for 90 percent of their shifts).

Since then, we collected similar data about other diseases, including cancer or Alzheimer’s. You may be tempted to dismiss the importance of this result. Sure, many througout history imagined that physical activity was beneficial to health. But there is a huge difference between assuming something and actually knowing it.

In fact, when I teach our introductory classes or courses about wellbeing, I generally start the section on physical activity by providing a clear outline on the actual scientific data and making a clear distinction between what you can and what you can not achieve. Having this understanding instead of just assuming physical activity “is healthy” will mean the difference between actually using that knowledge. Let me show you a couple of examples why:

  • One of the most common reason most people today begin to workout is because they assume it will make them either to lose weight, build muscles, get a six pack or large buttocks. All of wich (big surprise!) is largely a misconception, and will not be the most likely outcome of their workouts.
  • Many other hopes that certain exercises will help them relieve chronic pain issues they have. And this is confirmed to be real, however it does not work in the way we tend to suppose it does. “So what?” you may think, “as long as it work why would I care to know the underlying mechanism?” Yet, having actual data of how things work instead of assuming we already know is important: in this case, it turns out that while it is true that exercise can help people affected by chronic back pain, that is only achieved by a balanced overall workout routine, while insisting on specific exercises that allegedly “help with back pain” (which is what most people in this case would look for) not only does not help but it can worsen it.
  • On the contrary, we often fail to appreciate the actual benefits of physical activity. We have convincing evidence that there are multiple health and mental health conditions which can be relieved or prevented by regular physical activity, yet we seldom consider this and look for any kind of other cure or prevention methods (which in most cases do not work, or they don’t work as well).

Aside from physical health, when we think about wellbeing we need to discuss the mental aspect, both from the perspective of mental disorders, and from psychological well being as a whole. For a fulfilling and succesful life, moreover, we need to extend our perspectives towards topics like relationships, career (which stems from education to fields like decision making in business settings or work performance optimisation), or free time.

So, what about psychology, behavioural and social studies? The situation is even worse. The first experimental laboratory of psychology was opened only in 1879 by Wilhelm Wundt.

Although that was a clear step forward – from, say, the times when we assumed that a mental disorder was caused by demons taking possession of a person’s body – most of the work done in the field still lacked any scientific basics. The most notable intellectuals who became engaged with it were more philosophers than scientists. In fact, if asked to think about a prominent psychologist, most people may mention Sigmund Freud, whose work, however influential, had no scientific roots whatsoever.

Only in recent times psychological and social studies have embraced the scientific method. Regarding those fields we discussed above – which are those we are the most concerned about when we want to apply the Functional Mindset in order to improve our lives – the actual research had began only a few decades, if not only a few years ago.

The transition is far from being completed, even today.

As we’ll see later in better details, it is a known fact that most of actual medical or psychological care is not evidence based even today. In fact, the movement to promote a radical change in medicine had began only in the 1980s, after in the late 1960s and 1970s it became well known that the traditional approach to medical decision-making was deeply flawed (thanks, too, to psychological studies showing how unexpectedly flawed human decision-making is in general). In 1972, Archie Cochrane published an article that described the lack of supporting evidence for many practices which previously had just been assumed to be safe or effective. David M. Eddy described errors in clinical reasoning and gaps in evidence. In 1987 he was the first to use the term evidence-based medicine, promoting an approach to patient’s care based on scientific evidence, rather than traditions, beliefs or “personal intuition”.

For psychological studies and psychological care, we are talking about even more recent times.  It wasn’t until 1998 that we even had criterias to define what an empirically supported therapy is.

Besides, if we look at psychology from a broader perspective, the situation is even worse. For most of its history, psychological studies focused on mental illness. Which is very important of course, but it is only a limited perspective. There is much more going on, in life, and you can’t tell that simply removing a possible depressive or anxiety disorder is all there is to make a person’s life good. Having a completely fulfilling and happy life can’t be defined by simply “not being diagnosed with major depression”.

Yet, this broader perspective on psychology and social studies has not become prevalent until the end of the last century. In fact, every incoming president of the A.P.A. (the American Psychological Association), is asked to choose a theme for his or her yearlong term in the office. In 1998, Martin Steligman pointed out exactly this issue on his first day of presidency. “I realized that my profession was half-baked”, he said, pointing out how for most of its history practictioners and researchers have only focused on bringing patients from a negative state (anxiety, depression, neurosis, obsessions, paranoia, delusions), to a neutral one. And little attention was given to the conditions “that make human beings flourish”, creating a positive state of the human mind, rather than simply a “not bad” one.

This is pretty much what we do here at AuroraWay, and the purpose of coaching. We are not therapist or physicians who treat ill people. We want to help people to live better. Life coaching itself never existed in history until the 1960s. Iit become established as an independent profession only in the 1990s. It pretty much has been an unregulated profession with no roots in science ever since. Which is what we are trying to change, helping people to empower themselves thanks to an understanding of the Functional Mindset and how to practically apply it to their lives.

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