You are what you think

What we think, we become.

— Buddha

When I study a patient’s health, I become a student of their habits because I see how strongly habits determine health.

When I study a patient’s habits, I become a student of their inner life because I see how strongly the inner life determines habits.

All components of our inner life have definite implications for physical health, for better or for worse. To name a few:

  • belief systems
  • what we say 
  • content of our self-talk
  • ability to focus and organize 
  • emotional grounding
  • will power

Our physical organs thrive (or don’t) in connection with the content of our inner life. People like to link health solely to nutrition, but you aren’t at all only what you eat. You’re how you sleep, how you move, and how you think, as well.

Control of thought

You are part of a gigantic thought project. Did you know that? The project is to see to what degree you can control your own thinking process. There is a ton of interest to see how you will do. A lot is riding on it.

You are either present and in control of your thinking or you are handing control over. There is no in-between. Please be aware that there are agents with other agendas who would love to influence your thinking, and all they require is a dip in your attention.

No Free Lunch

When I was in medical school our pharmacology department at Georgetown presented us with a course in our final year on the influence of pharmaceutical sales representatives, who offered a free lunch in exchange for a few minutes to present their product. Surveys showed almost all doctors thought it possible that doctors’ prescribing patterns could be influenced by these visits (which also included free pens and sticky notes labeled with their drug’s name) but denied that their own prescribing patterns were influenced by visits. Data showed otherwise.

Prescribing patterns showed that if a sales rep visited, prescribing patterns changed. Period. That’s why they came and kept coming. Free food got them in the door. Doctors were being influenced, their patterns were changing, and they were not aware. Remember these are not “health representatives”, they are “sales representatives.” Their title tells you their bias.

By our pharmacology department, we were presented with a slogan: No Free Lunch. It was stamped on complimentary pens and sticky pads and stuffed in our pockets and off we went, to start the practice of brown bagging it and doing our own research.

The pocket supercomputers we carry with us (smartphones) and the targeted media programming they contain have the power to influence people’s thinking. We can understand the well-documented details of how past elections were influenced by them; it’s easy to see in someone else. Can we see the effects on ourselves? I’ll say it again: You are either present and in control of your thinking or you are handing control over.

Mental Programming

Example: Sweden

If you live in New England and you hear the two words “COVID” and “Sweden” and you pause to let word associations rise… (try it, please)…

COVID and Sweden… What do you think?

… You might think of phrases like “dubious approach,” “questionable choices,” and “bad outcomes.”

If these sorts of associations arise, you’ve come by it because of headlines and articles like this:

Column: Did Sweden beat the pandemic by refusing to lock down? No, its record is disastrous (LA Times 3/31/22)

“Horrifying”, “disastrous”, and “questionable” are words used in the article to describe Sweden’s approach which varied from the rest of the Western world.

“Hard, cold statistics documenting its failure” is the kicker.

Seriously, LA Times, that’s a lot of energy! Methinks thou doth protest too much!

There are numerous 2020 articles and 2021 articles, as well, drawing harsh conclusions on the Swedish approach at every point along the way. How could conclusions be drawn with only portions of data? It seemed very reckless to me at the time.

These articles, I would argue, are what mental programming looks like. You can detect a clear emotion-based appeal, for example.

I recognize the effects on people exposed to it because they aren’t able to provide details on why they have their opinions. They might say something like, “I actually don’t know a whole lot about it, but… (insert opinion here).”  I heard that a lot during the pandemic. Any opinion that starts with that introduction can’t possibly carry water. And there is usually reference expert opinion.

Sweden was the only major Western country to keep schools open for ages 1 to 15 and impose no mandatory lockdown. This was, by the way, their pre-pandemic planned-out approach.  It was everyone’s pre-pandemic pandemic plan. All they did was stay to their plan of focused protection. They endured heavy international pressure. Was it out of care for the Swedes? I think not. I think there was plenty of “do-it-like-we-do-it-to-make-us-feel-better-about-what-we-are-doing” energy.

“If everyone is thinking alike, then no one is thinking.”

— Benjamin Franklin

Following the crowd is not making your most powerful impact. Saddling up to the closest expert and their thinking is not thriving or succeeding in the gigantic thought project. Finding the smartest person in your vicinity and copying them is what children do. It’s OK for a certain stage of development, but I would argue it is time for each of us to think. Our ability to think will be what creates meaningful solutions for the future. Can you believe that “doing your own research” was slang for being foolish during the pandemic? Can humans be trusted to think? It’s a real question. If not, we are a lost cause. If you know me, you know I refuse to believe we are such.

Take-home message

First, let’s describe Sweden’s approach in a nutshell: holistic.

The approach could be summarized as one of targeted protection and one that took a bigger picture view. Swedish leaders stressed “repeatedly that the Swedish strategy takes a holistic view of public health, aiming to balance the risk of the virus with the damage from countermeasures like closed schools. The goal was to protect the elderly and other high-risk groups while slowing viral spread enough to avoid hospitals being overwhelmed.”

Any article harshly knocking Sweden’s approach will be dated before May 2022. Articles after that have had to deal with WHO numbers that were released at that time showing Sweden with some of the lowest excess mortality figures from 2020-2022. This is the measurement that tells the full story of how a country did during COVID. Here’s a headline from May of 2022 in the Telegraph reporting on the numbers:

Sweden’s Covid death rate among lowest in Europe, despite avoiding strict lockdowns

New WHO figures show pandemic wrought ‘staggering toll’ of almost 15m fatalities, but harsh restrictions were not the key to beating virus

— May 5, 2022- Telegraph

No article after May 2022 has the same heavy judgment that was seen before (nor does it have apologies). I see plenty of articles after mid-2022 crunching the numbers this way or that to try to dampen any enthusiasm.

Notably, these articles should also report that Swedish school testing has not taken a dip as it has in places that had school closures. Notably, teachers fared as well as any other profession in Sweden as far as health risks during the pandemic. Also, notably, Sweden’s COVID mortality was better than much of Europe.

My desire is for you to be exposed to the opinion, from an independent and neutral source, that Sweden’s approach and outcomes should be of interest to us.

5 Conclusions

1. Sweden has a unique population. Their favorable all-cause mortality rates during COVID-19 do not predict success everywhere with the same approach or under all circumstances. However, we should consider that during this pandemic, Western world policy might have been too heavily focused on COVID mortality alone. It’s best to have policy that considers holistic viewpoints including the most meaningful measure: all-cause mortality. We should learn from this.

2. Holistic approaches tend to what is immediately evident considerations as well as what is not immediately evident. There’s what is right in front of your face and there’s stuff you can’t see. It all needs and wants your attention. We like holistic approaches.

3. The press, just like social media, just like Hollywood, is interested in the way you think. Be alert. Seek out sources that get high rankings for being neutral. Unplug more than you’re plugged in.

4. For those who think they can listen to what the experts are saying the following must be considered: when the research dollars are centralized, for an expert researcher to be critical of centralized policies, they are likely deciding between their livelihood and their opinion if it deviates from the central agency. Learn to be alert for bias.

5. The lesson is not anti-lockdown. It’s not focused protection. The lesson is to learn to observe and learn. The lesson is to learn to look for bias. The lesson is not to be coerced into being dependent on anybody else’s thinking. The lesson is that there is No Free Lunch.

Thanks for tuning in.