A celebration of open minds

Barry Marshall and Robin Warren are my new heroes.  It is not just that they are this year’s noble Nobel prizewinners in medicine, they are also shining examples of that glorious and possibly rather rare condition called the open mind.

Of course most of us would like to believe we are similarly blessed: open to fresh ideas, eager to see situations objectively and creatively, able to shed the limitations of outworn theories.  But are we?

Drs Marshall and Warren’s brilliance was to resist and transcend the assumptions that had hardened into facts.  Their colleagues “knew” that stomach ulcers were caused by stress or excess gastric acid. That is what they had been taught. That is what they had learned to “see”.  Marshall and Warren persistently and stubbornly questioned this.  But even when they had begun to treat patients with stomach ulcers successfully with antibiotics, on the basis that the ulcers were caused not by stress but by treatable bacteria, many of the scientific minds around them remained closed and defensive.

 This is not because those doctors were against medical progress, we can assume.  Nor is it likely that they wished their suffering patients to be anything but well.  But they – like almost all the rest of us – were seemingly reluctant to shift in any real way the familiar parameters of their thinking.  What had they been “seeing” was incorrect.  They would now have to see and understand things differently.  This can be uncomfortable as well as unwelcome.  (If we have seen this incorrectly, where does it leave us in regard to the rest of our certainties?) Yet it is exactly that ability to question what seems self-evident that opens the door to new thinking, new ideas and occasionally new conclusions and even cures as brilliant as this one.  Science – and all other disciplines – relies on this kind of inventive, open mind for progress.  Yet a great deal of scientific teaching and certainly much of the practice that flows from it stultifies this kind of thrilling inventiveness, and the raw curiosity that drives it, in favour of what is known, tried and “true”.

Few of us will find our professional assumptions turned over as dramatically as they were in this instance.  But the general lessons about how blinkered we can easily become are nevertheless evident.  Only a day or so after this Nobel news came through, I saw an item on ABC TV where an experienced naturopath had treated with dietary supplements a four-year-old child for his skin irritations and nervous tension. Incidentally, the child’s symptoms of autism had noticeably lessened.  He was easier to be with and was making better social contact.  But when the medical doctor on the show was asked what she thought of this, she could speak only from her own model.  She would have used occupational and speech therapy to address his autism, she said. What struck me was how well-meaning she was, yet how lacking in curiosity about this powerful and touching “secondary gain” simply because it had emerged from a way of looking that was not her own.

Curiosity, instinct and open mindedness are qualities that we would like all our health practitioners to have, as well as all our scientists, politicians, teachers, health workers, media and people of influence.  But we need collectively to encourage this.  It takes nerve and courage to maintain the crucial degree of uncertainty that pushes us to re-examine what seems “obvious”.  It takes will and drive to push from the known (or assumed) into the unknown.  Whether our certainties are religious, economic, scientific, political or psychological or any other kind, they can easily harden.  What we believe absolutely shapes our vision.  As long as we are convinced the earth is flat, that’s what we will see.  Questioning our beliefs, or taking seriously insights quite different from our own, can seem threatening to our very sense of who we are.  But that doesn’t make it less urgent or essential.