Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Amazing Work of Religion and Medicine

The Amazing Work of Religion and Medicine

Yesterday, I attended a special lecture about differences between western and eastern bioethics. It was a quite interesting lecture, telling us to see one bioethics problem from multiple points of view, i.e. western and eastern point of view.

First, of course, we have to realize the different perception between western and eastern culture. The way people act or the way they make a decision is influenced by their culture. The foundation in western culture is based on logical thinking; individualism, independent, and reality, while in eastern culture, intuition and relation with others are dominating. This different culture will affect on how they solve their daily problems, included medical bioethics problems. Assisted-suicide (euthanasia), for example, has been legalized in two states in America, while it is considered taboo in Japan. “Dying with dignity” is also an individual right in western culture, but not in eastern culture. It is God who has our life and it is only God who can take our life.
Actually, I wish I could listen to more explanations about many bioethics issues and how western and eastern doctors solve the problems, but then the lecture ended up in a somehow unrelated explanation about the meaning of Japanese kanji or Chinese character. This has made the lecture turned into Japanese language class!

Well, despite its unexpected Japanese language class, this lecture reminded me of last month issue in TIME magazines. Big font title, “How Faith Can Heal” was written on its front cover, with a lengthy 14 pages discussion inside. This issue is attractive! I know science seems likely to collide with religion, on the other hand, I can not neglect that spirituality is working and may be very good for our health. Especially in Indonesia where many of the people easily believe that your health problems may disappear only by praying to God or even only by touching a magical stone, like Ponari’s miracle stone. I am glad that scientists and doctors (even) in the logical western countries also give attention to this matter.

According to the article, praying really works in our body. The parietal lobe in brain is the special area which in particular involved in praying activities. When people engage in prayer, the frontal lobes will first take the lead since they govern focus and concentration and during deep prayer, the parietal lobe will replace the work. If we ever prayed so hard that we have lost our sense of world outside ourselves, or if we ever mediated so deeply that we can feel the boundaries of our body dissolved, that is our parietal lobe at work. Interestingly, a growing body of scientific evidence suggests that faith may indeed bring us health. People who attend religious services do have a lower risk of dying in any one year than people who don’t attend. People who believe in loving God fare better after a diagnosis of illness than people who believe in a punitive God. Dr. Gail Ironson, a professor of psychiatry and psychology at the University of Miami who studies HIV and religious belief, said in this article: “Spirituality predicts for better disease control”.

Not only do prayers heal our body, they also make a change in our brain. If we pray and mediate enough, some changes in brain become permanent. Long-term meditators-those with 15 years of practice or more-appear to have thicker frontal lobes than nonmeditators. People who describe themselves as highly spiritual tend to exhibit an asymmetry in the thalamus-a feature that other people can develop after just eight weeks of training in meditation skills. These changes bring another advantage, better functioning frontal lobes help boost memory. In one study, Dr. Andrew Newberg, a professor of radiology, psychology and religious study at the University of Pennsylvania and co-founder of Penn’s Center for Spirituality and the Mind, found that people who complained of poor recall have improved their memory after underwent meditation training. As the frontal lobes are getting bigger, the ability to remember is getting better.

Although many studies seem support those amazing effects of praying, a scientific basis for a link between prayer and healing is a blur. A larger study in 2005 by cardiologist Herbert Benson at Harvard University showed that complications occurred in 52% of heart-bypass patients who received intercessory prayer and 51% of those who didn’t. No difference at all. Also Dr. Richard Sloan, professor of behavioral medicine at Columbia University Medical Science, said, “It is impossible to know how much prayer is received and since you don’t know that, you can’t determine dose”. The most important basic methodological reason is difficult to fulfill. Religion and science address different concerns. “It’s a fatal flaw to think that you can use the methods of science to learn something meaningful about religion” said him.

One thing we all must realize here, prayer effect is just like placebo effect. The placebo effect is a well-known medical phenomenon where the treatments results can be affected by the way the patients think about their treatment. If the patient believes and expects that the treatment will success, then it will. The placebo effect can work all manner of curative magic against all manner of ills. Give a patient a sugar pill but call it an analgesic and pain may actually go away. Dr. Newberg also described a cancer patient whose tumors shrank when he was given an experimental drug, grew back when he learned that the drug was ineffective in other patients, and shrank again when his doctor administered sterile water but said it was a more powerful version of the medication. “The brain appears to be able to target the placebo effect in a variety of ways,” said Dr. Newberg.

If placebo pills can really work to heal us, then it is not surprising, believe in God and the teachings of religion will heal us as well. Yes, so far logical science methods cannot be used to learn something abstract like religion. But again, we have to admit that religious belief is not just a matter of psychological mind, it does really affect our physical body.

Talking about such an intimate topic like religion in medical practices is difficult for both the doctors and the patients. We had to say Hippocratic Oath (it was widely believed written by Hippocrates in the 4th century, BC) before we entered clinical practice as doctors, and in the Indonesian modified Hippocratic Oath, we promised that we will treat our patients regardless of his religion, his ethnic group, his political view, and his social status. So yes, I do feel difficult to have a religious conversation with patients. In my opinion, doctors do not have to talk intimately about religious belief with his patients because it may raise prejudice and bias his judgment, but I do agree that we need someone in the middle who can break the ice. Patients need to be encouraged to achieve the goal of the treatment.

Back to the lecture, at the end of the session the lecturer encouraged us to always try to understand every issue from many different perspectives. Regarding the matter of healing process, it’s the result, not the source that counts the most.

Warm regards,

- Mind & Body Special Issue: How Faith Can Heal (TIME, February 23, 2009)

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