We Are Epistemic Hypochondriacs

If you want to witness one marvel of the human body, smack your thumb with a hammer. A precise, coordinated self-healing process will immediately rush in for repairs. “Blood platelets secrete clotting factors that soon stem the bleeding,” writes Randolph Nesse and George Williams in their book Why We Get Sick. “Other cells secrete a complex variety of substances that cause inflammation, thus raising the temperature of the tissue and making it harder for any invading bacteria to grow. They also keep the thumb painful, thus protecting it from minor stresses that might disrupt the healing process. Simultaneously, the immune system rushes specialized infection fighters to the site. They either attack any bacteria that the injury might have introduced or take them to lymph nodes, where they can be more easily destroyed.”

What’s remarkable is how we humans disrupt this process. First, we’ll use an ice pack to reduce the swelling, even though 1) swelling is an effective repair strategy and 2) no empirical evidence suggests that reducing swelling is helpful. Second, we’ll rush to the pharmacy to look for pills, bandages, etc, instead of simply allowing the immune system from preforming a fairly routine procedure.

The mind is preoccupied with the need to do something, even when inaction is the optimal strategy, and even when we are perfectly healthy. Let’s call this epistemic hypochondriasis – our obsessive urge to generate an explanation and search for a cause, even when none exist, of an unfavorable event (and a favorable one, but to a lesser extend) and then doing something to about, even if it’s counter productive. I recently returned to portions of Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Idols and realized that he captured this bias precisely:

We want to have a reason for feeling as we do – for feeling well or for feeling ill. It never suffices us simply to establish the mere fact that we feel as we do.

To trace something unknown back to something known is alleviating, soothing, gratifying and gives moreover a feeling of power… First principle: any explanation is better than none.

This is most obvious, perhaps, in medicine. Here is my favorite quote from Druin Barch’s Taking the Medicine:

To this day, little in medicine is so difficult as doing nothing at all. Medicine is founded on the desire of patients to be helped and of doctors to help. These desire outweigh sense. The difficult of doing nothing, or of admitting that there is nothing to be done, is overwhelming.


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